At MOMocrats: Roundtable discussion of HHS’s overruling of FDA recommendation on Plan B

Over at MOMocrats, Cyn has posted a roundup of an email discussion between some of the MOMo contributors, myself included, about the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) decision to overrule the FDA recommendation to make the “morning-after pill,” or Plan B, available without a prescription to people of all ages (it’s currently over the counter for people over 17). The decision of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as President Obama’s comments in support of this decision,  have sparked a sharp backlash from many (though not all) feminists and women’s rights/health groups. As the MOMocrats post shows, reactions from women’s health advocates to this decision are far from monolithic, and many who strongly disagree with  HHS’s and President Obama’s decision also see complicated and complicating factors underlying this issue (I’m included in that camp). To quote Cyn’s conclusion, “We wrestle with tough questions and have differences of opinion and yet are all at our core profoundly committed to pro-choice as part of reproductive justice.”

I have more thoughts on the subject that I hope to be posting soon to the MOMocrats blog; of course I’ll share that post here as well.

I took a longer break from blogging than anticipated, but new posts will resume tomorrow!


Quiverfull and reproductive choice: it’s complicated

Just a warning that this post is on the rambling side. It’s unedited and, well, I’m kind of upset.

Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar announced today that they are expecting their 20th child. Naturally this has sparked all sorts of reactions from the internets, some of which are really problematic.

I’ll just get it out of the way that calling Michelle Duggar’s uterus a clown car is pretty misogynistic, calling her and her husband crazy is ableist, and saying they’re stupid is narrow-minded. There’s no need to denigrate Michelle Duggar’s body or reproductive capacity to critique Quiverfull teaching, people live with mental illness and don’t have 10 or 20 children, and plenty of intelligent people end up in high control communities like Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy.

With that said: another response that comes up every time the Duggars announce they’re expecting another child, one that’s been bothering me all day, is the response from many that believing in reproductive choice means that we can’t possibly critique the Duggars’ continual expansion of their family.

I have a lot of reactions to this. Mostly it makes me feel like ranting. A lot.

Yes, people have a right to choose to have more children, regardless of the opinions of others on whether or not they’ve reproduced enough, regardless of how distasteful or wrong-headed others might find their personal beliefs or lifestyles. This is true.

But here’s the thing. The Duggars don’t believe in choice. I don’t mean only reproductive choice. Any kind of personal choice at all. There’s finding and following God’s will, or rejecting it. That’s it. This is true in terms of how they worship, how they court and marry, how they choose vocations, how they educate their children, in every aspect of their lives. And it’s true in how they approach reproduction, too.

As my friend Sae put it, “autonomy is not a factor in why [Michelle Duggar] is giving birth again.” This is rather clear in what Michelle Duggar herself has said about having more children, e.g.:

  • “Many years ago, Jim Bob & I gave this area of our lives to God, allowing Him to grant life as He saw fit.” (their announcement today, via NLQ.)
  • “God is the one who gives life…We would welcome another [child] if He saw fit, but we’ll wait and see.” (Last year.)

So when people talk about the need to respect Michelle Duggar’s reproductive choices I can’t help but feel they either don’t know much about what the Duggars believe, or they’ve decided to ignore it. Because what they’re doing is describing Michelle Duggar’s pregnancy in terms she would find morally abhorrent. She hasn’t made a choice to have a child, in her view. She’s been given a child by God. The only choice she claims is the choice to be happy with whatever God gives her and when. Reproductive choice is an utterly meaningless concept in this worldview.

Another problem: even if Michelle Duggar did understand her pregnancies in terms of choice, that wouldn’t necessarily mean she’s exercising it.

Here’s a parallel: Many believers in Christian patriarchy hold to teachings that married women are not permitted to ever refuse their husbands sex. There’s even a segment of the movement that considers it a sin for a couple to not have sex when the wife is ovulating – i.e., sex during ovulation is religiously mandated. I doubt many feminists would claim that sex that a woman literally can’t turn down without sinning is fully consensual. So why would we claim that a pregnancy conceived in a context where women are outside of God’s will if they take any sort of action (including avoiding potentially procreative sex) to prevent or manage reproduction? If the sex that produces the pregnancy isn’t quite consensual, how can the pregnancy that results be entirely a choice? I’m puzzled by this.

It seems to me that part of the problem is that choice feminism is often too simplistic in its assumptions about people’s actions and the possibilities available to them. There’s often no recognition of the fact that people’s choices can be severely constrained by the circumstances around them. When people say they respect Michele Duggar’s choice they either don’t see or don’t recognize the ways in which her hands are tied by the culture she’s part of.

‘Cause here’s the other thing. Christian patriarchy is a high control culture. It’s a cult. And people in cults often claim, often quite sincerely, that they’re making free choices even as they repeatedly “choose” the same things everyone else in the group does. They often honestly believe that they really truly want and independently choose things that they really have no choice but to accept as members of a high control group.

Cults are real. Brainwashing is real. Mind control is real. People can be manipulated and controlled. People can think they’re making “free” choices and not really be doing so. I know. It happened to me. It’s happened to many, many people who ultimately leave high control groups and realize, in retrospect, that they were had.

I don’t know if this idea scares people, and that’s why they resist it, or if people just don’t believe it because they haven’t experienced it. But these things are real. It doesn’t mean people are stupid. It doesn’t mean people are incapable of making decisions. It just means that free will and personal autonomy get really complicated when you mix them up with bullying, manipulation, and spiritual abuse.

More thoughts on this coming.

ELEVATE the Conversation: Fighting the stigma and campaign against HIV Testing

Given my fundamentalist background, I’m especially aware of the barriers posed by sex-negative, stigmatizing, false assumptions and beliefs about HIV testing. Beliefs that AIDS is a “gay disease,” even a punishment from God for a “homosexual lifestyle.” Abstinence-only programs that teach young women that that the only protection they need from pregnancy or STIs is “purity” and “self-control” before marriage – loading the language in a way that suggests that only immoral people who can’t control themselves need sexual or reproductive health services.

These messages stigmatize sexuality in general, by making it out to be something dirty, and especially stigmatize queer and female sexuality. They lull people into a false sense of safety by implying that being (or behaving) straight, or only having sex with one’s spouse, are some sort of protection against HIV. They discourage people from getting tested.

We need to elevate the conversation around HIV by combating these false and dangerous stereotypes. Thetruth is that HIV can be transmitted in a variety of ways, and testing is important for anyone who is sexually active, regardless of sexual behaviors or orientation. Furthermore, heterosexual contact is now the primary mode of infection in the general population, and among black women specifically.

We also need to elevate the conversation around HIV testing by promoting positive messages about sexuality and sexual health. That sexual expression is a normal part of most people’s lives, and that it can and should be enjoyable, empowering and, safe. That taking care of our sexual health is part of taking care of our general health. That sexual health services are basic health care, period, no more shameful and no less necessary than vaccinations or physicals (in fact, the CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13-64 be tested at least once as part of their routine care). That getting tested for HIV is an act of self-care and self-empowerment.

It’s particularly crucial to intentionally and aggressively promote these messages at a time when women’s health, especially Black women’s health, is under intense attack. Conservatives have escalated efforts at the national and state levels to defund programs and organizations like Title IX and Planned Parenthood, which disproportionately serve women of color and women in under-served communities. These attacks are undertaken under the false pretext of preventing taxpayer money from being spent on abortions, already illegal in most cases. What these attacks really do is strip funding from programs that give Black women access to sexual and reproductive health services that save lives and are indispensable to women’s health – like HIV testing.

Further, in the past year Black women (and now Latina women) have been the targets of misogynist and racist ad campaigns that paint abortion as a tool of racial “genocide,” implicitly painting Black women as the greatest threat to their own communities:

Creating a perfect storm of race, class, and gender-baiting in the midst of the abortion and health care debate, these ads imply that Black women are either ignorant dupes of racist, profiteering abortion providers, or uncaring enemies of their people, willing to make Black children an ‘endangered species’ to further their own selfish goals. – Eleanor Hinton Hoytt

These ads demonize Black women for making use of reproductive health services. Their anti-woman, anti-Black rhetoric is a full-on assault on Black women’s health as a whole, and on Black communities.We need to push back and send a loud and clear message with the truth about Black women’s health. The truth is that when we’re in the dark about our HIV status, we’re in the dark about how best to take care of ourselves. The truth is that when we get tested, we take charge of our own health, and we help our communities. The truth is that when we have access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care, we are healthier, and our communities are healthier.

Never been tested? Do it today, this week, do it as soon as possible. It doesn’t take long, and all it takes is a cheek swab (no needles!). Check out the Elevate Campaign Website to find a center near you.

National HIV Testing Day: ELEVATE the Conversation

Today is National HIV Testing Day. Are Women Human? is partnering with the Black Women’s Health Imperative to promote the ELEVATE Campaign, aimed at raising awarenesss about HIV among Black women, and getting more Black women tested for HIV. As with so many issues, the impact of HIV/AIDS on individuals and communities is dramatically shaped by factors like race, gender, and class.

There’s overwhelming evidence that we desperately need HIV prevention efforts that take these factors into account, creating culturally appropriate outreach and services, and empowering and making visible under-served populations that are most affected by or vulnerable to HIV. Black women are disproportionately affected by HIV. The stats on rates of infection are alarming [Source: ELEVATE campaign unless otherwise stated]:

  • While the U.S. population is 13% Black, 45% of Americans newly infected with HIV are Black.
  • AIDS is the number 1 cause of death for Black women ages 25-44.
  • 1 in 30 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lifetime.
  • Black women account for 9 out of 10 new HIV infections in women. [Source:
  • Black trans women are particularly at risk, with studies suggesting that rates of infection could be as high as 56%over 15 times the rate of the general population of Black women. [Source: Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, PDF]

Most of these cases are in communities where resources or opportunities are scarce; women are struggling to find jobs, to provide for themselves and their families, and to access preventative services like HIV testing. As Eleanor Hinton Hoytt, president of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, notes, this is further complicated by the fact that the impact of HIV on black women is often overlooked or poorly addressed:

HIV infection among Black women is a complex mix of economic, social, cultural, biological, environmental, and behavioral factors. The HIV statistics about Black women are often buried within the statistics of the general HIV/AIDS population or are lumped together with statistics on Black men. This practice disguises the compelling evidence that Black women represent a disproportionate number of HIV cases, compared to our representation in the overall female population in the US.

Clearly HIV awareness and testing is an important issue for anyone who is sexually active. However, it’s clear from these numbers that it’s particularly important for Black women that we get tested, and that we work to raise awareness of and access to HIV testing among Black women and in Black communities.

Stigmas, stereotypes, and misconceptions around HIV transmission and sexual health in general, as well as deliberate efforts to undermine women’s access to essential health services, pose a significant barrier to HIV testing. I’ll say more in a post later today about how these challenges and how we can respond to them proactively.

Never been tested? Do it today, this week, as soon as possible. It doesn’t take long, and all it takes is a cheek swab (no needles!). Check out the Elevate Campaign Website to find a center near you.