Women, Abortion Rights & Willie Parker

Dr. Willie Parker
Dr. Willie Parker

Noted physician/activist Willie Parker was in San Francisco recently explaining why he does what he does.

What Willie Parker does is regularly put his life on the line in behalf of poor women and their reproductive health. Why does he do it? “It’s the right thing to do.” Among other things Parker does is to fly regularly into Jackson, MS to provide abortions at the one remaining clinic where Mississippi women without power or resources can go for this constitutionally-protected health service.

His belief that it would be morally wrong not to help the women who come to him, Parker once told this writer, was rooted partially in a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the good Samaritan (who stopped to help a stranger after others had passed him by.) “What made the good Samaritan ‘good’ was that instead of thinking about what might happen if he stopped to help the traveler, he thought about what would happen to the traveler if he didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop to weigh the life of a pre-viable or a lethally flawed fetus against the life of the woman sitting across from me.”

Parker headlined an event celebrating the 43rd anniversary of Roe v Wade that was organized by Carol Joffe, PhD, of the University of California San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health – and which quickly sold out.

“Most (abortion) providers keep a low profile,” Joffe said in her introductory remarks; “but Willie has chosen to be very public. (Despite his multiple degrees and honors, everybody seems to call Dr. Parker ‘Willie.’) He is building bridges to the past and to the future.” Joffe went on to speak of Parker’s connections to progressive causes, faith communities and, most recently to the Black Lives Matter movement. “What he is doing,” she said, “helps all women to live lives of dignity.”

Parker, who treats the issue of personal danger as not worth his time to worry about, calls the anti-abortion efforts “domestic terrorism,” especially with the murder of providers. The incessant efforts to overturn Roe, and passage of more and more unnecessary state laws making abortion inaccessible for women without power or resources are, he maintains, in the same “domestic terrorism” category.

The author with the doctor
The author with the doctor

So in return Parker says he tries to “radicalize” every young woman he sees in Mississippi. Since the state mandates he spend time with her, unnecessarily and repeatedly, before allowing her to have the abortion which is her constitutional right, Parker considers it only fair to put that time to best use. “I tell her, ‘these people who are trying to close this clinic – they don’t think you’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ And I explain change will only happen if she fights for it. Then I tell her to go vote.”

All of which helps explain why Willie Parker does what he does. This writer is among the uncounted others, women and men believing in humanity and justice, who give thanks.

 

 

Do Lives Matter? Or just guns?

Vigil with Chiu
California Assemblymember David Chiu, whose district includes The Bayview, speaks to Vigil participants

Candles lit, holding signs that read SPREAD LOVE, NOT VIOLENCE or COMMUNITIES AGAINST GUN VIOLENCE the group stood waiting to start. But nearly half of those expected were missing. It seems there had been a shooting several blocks away. One dead. A lot of police involved, traffic blocked.

 

The vigil to protest gun violence, delayed by gun violence, eventually got underway.

This was on a recent wintry night in San Francisco, when a group from Grace Tabernacle Community Church in the city’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood gathered for one of the regular vigils they have long held in memory of those killed by gunfire. It is a long list. The Bayview holds the unenviable record of having the most deaths and injuries from gun violence – by a large margin – of any area of San Francisco. It would be almost impossible to find anyone in the community who has not lost a family member, friend or acquaintance to gunfire; yet it is still home to generations of good people who continue to work for a better, even gun-free future.

Joining the Grace Tabernacle vigil group were a number of friends from Calvary Presbyterian church in the city’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, an affluent community which holds the unenviable record of having the city’s highest suicide rate. Some by gunshot.

Once the latecomers made it past the scene of the latest shooting, the group walked candles-aloft to a nearby corner where a young man had been killed not long ago. A collection of burned-out candles in colorful holders, some now broken, surrounded the parking meter at the spotVigil memorial.1 where he had fallen; the police had given up on it and let the site remain as a memorial. His name was Otis. No one knows who shot him; possibly he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grace Tabernacle’s Bishop Jackson said a prayer and the group slowly moved on.

Occasionally they sang. (This Little Light of Mine . . . We Shall Overcome.) The wind repeatedly blew out candles, but there always seemed to be a flame somewhere. One candle-holder said to another, as she re-lit her candle by his, “I was shot in the shoulder on that corner a block away.”

The day after the vigil, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., presumably confident that no troubled person would ever be a student at Liberty, urged his students to arm themselves.

Also on that day the Senate once again failed to pass gun control measures, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill that would have prevented people on terrorist watch lists from being able to buy guns with which to commit terror.

Several days later, some who had attended the vigil heard John Weems, at Calvary Presbyterian, address the issue of gun violence. Weems had been part of the vigil, and made a biblically appropriate metaphor of the candles being blown out by the wind, but constantly re-ignited. Darkness, he said, cannot overcome the light.

At the end of his sermon Weems lifted a stack of 8 x 10 sheets about three inches thick, and a few helpers distributed them among the congregation. There were 353 sheets listing the date, location and number of people killed or wounded in each of the mass shootings (four or more killed or wounded) in the U.S. this year according to the only-in-America website shootingtracker.com. Another 45 sheets bore the names of the known 2015 victims of gun violence in San Francisco, the city named for a compassionate saint.

Gun collage

It would be impossible to know how many firearms are in private hands in this country, but it’s safe to say at least a few hundred million. Some of them – “assault weapons,” “semi-automatic rifles,” “sporting guns” by whatever name you choose – can kill more people faster than others; any of them can kill or maim. A wide range of weapons were used for the 353 mass shootings of 2015; all of them succeeded in wounding or killing human beings. The three sheets left to this distributor read:

DURHAM, N.C.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 8. DEAD: 0

ROSWELL, N.M.; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 1. DEAD: 3

CINCINNATI, OH; 8/21/2015. WOUNDED: 5. DEAD: 2

It’s hard not to think about how much darkness might be prevented by having a few less guns in the U.S. Those who know that darkness best continue to light candles . . . and hope.

candles

 

 

 

On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

Jury Duty: the Good Citizen job

Jury summons

The dreaded envelope arrived. Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco:

You are summoned for JURY SERVICE (capitalization theirs) during the week, and at the place indicated below. Please read the entire summons entirely…

Who has not received – usually with a little dread – that windowed envelope? Because it means a day, or a week, or a month or more of your life has just been appropriated for Citizenship Duty. That is, after all, what Jury Duty is all about: being the Good Citizen. Doing what you can for the greater good of your fellow citizens.

Actually, I have always loved jury duty. Over the years, my jury duty experiences have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There was the sweet young thing who scammed a few dozen friends and relations out of a few thousand dollars each, and wanted us to believe she really meant just to make everyone rich and didn’t understand why anybody was mad at her. The unanimous vote to convict came by about the time we got seated and organized.

There were times we deliberated to the point of exhaustion, and times I wondered if a better lawyer would have had us voting differently. There were plenty of times I spent a day or two and wasn’t chosen for duty; usually with a great sense of relief.

There was the time, in a jury pool for a domestic violence case, when the defense attorney introduced his spiffed-up client, and addressed the pool: “There could be implications about Mr. Smith… that he had a few glasses of wine…” The attorney smiled knowingly at us, wanting to be sure we’re all grown-ups and what’s a few glasses of wine after all? I was tempted to say, “Man, don’t give me that bull. You don’t want me on this jury, I will so fry your client.” But I asked to be excused, saying I felt personal bias would make it difficult for me to remain open-minded.

jury-selection-1

The only other time I asked to be excused was when the case involved two corporate entities and some sort of asbestos issue. The judge told us at the beginning that it could run six months. Six months? A couple of corporations wanted 12 citizens (plus alternates) to give up six months of their lives to settle something they should lock their lawyers into a small room to work out? I was beyond irate. The judge invited anyone who felt jury service would be a hardship to come to an adjacent room; virtually the entire pool rose. Uncertain what exactly I would say I began, “My brother-in-law is a chest physician…” and that was as far as I got. “Excused,” said the judge, without looking up. I wasn’t actually very sure where I was going with that explanation, but apparently the judge just wanted to get it over with. I felt sorry for him.

But that’s the way the system works. Good people go to law school, get to be judges and have to sit through all this. More good people give up their time to try to find justice for other good people and perhaps a little justice for the bad guys while they’re at it.

For now, though, I’m opting out. This presents a problem, since apparently you never age out of jury duty and there is no excuse box for Overwhelmed.

One can opt out if under 18, not a citizen, or if one has been convicted of a felony or malfeasance in office. Or if one has a physical or mental disability. None of the above quite worked for me.

At the bottom of the opting-out section, though, I discovered one can be excused if one has a full-time, non-professional obligation to provide care for a related disabled person and alternative arrangements are not possible during court hours. (California Rules of Court, rule 2.1008.)

At last. A reward for the caregiving business. Does caregiving equate to good citizenship? One hopes.

It was — 1933 — a very good year

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is too old? Perhaps she should consider stepping down from the Supreme Court?

These suggestions were floated more than once in the Q&A session after a recent Commonwealth Club talk by University of California Hastings Professor of Law Scott Dodson. Dodson is the editor of a newly released collection of essays, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose writers suggest nothing of the kind. Contributors to the book, and Dodson himself, focus instead on the significant contributions made thus far by the 82-year-old justice, and the impact she continues to have on jurisprudence and on life in the U.S.

Dodson was drawn to write about Ginsberg because he “kept encountering her clear and consistent opinions” and wanted to create an objective view of her legacy – notably including gender discrimination, as in the case that ended Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and racial discrimination, as in the voting rights case Shelby County v Holder. In the latter case, Ginsberg famously wrote that throwing out an anti-discriminatory measure as no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote several months ago: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has no interest in retiring.

Carol_Burnett_1958
Carol Burnett in 1958

Several days before the Dodson talk, David McCullough, 82, spoke at another San Francisco event in conjunction with his most recent book, The Wright Brothers. McCullough did not go into detail about his next project, but gives every indication that he is a writer with no interest in retiring.

Meanwhile in Texas, Willie Nelson, 82, has another concert coming up, and the next show planned by Carol Burnett, 82, is almost sold out.

This writer may not have anything else in common with Ruth, David, Carol and Willie, but we take what we can get. 1933 wasn’t a bad year to be born.

 

John Paul Stevens: 95 & Going Strong

John Paul Stevens

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a man of many accomplishments, comes across as a man of few regrets. The latter might be summed up in two words: Citizens United. His regrets over that controversial 5-4 decision, handed down just months before he left the Supreme Court, are strong, and many.

Stevens, who turned 95 in April, appeared recently at an event in Washington DC co-sponsored by the Alliance for Justice and George Washington University Law School. Introduced by AFJ President Nan Aron, Stevens was interviewed by Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

Stevens demurred on several issues such as the benefits or evils of social media and citizen journalists: “I’m not a good person to ask about that.” But on most points he was crystal clear.

Re political candidates having “a litmus test” for potential Supreme Court nominees? Even as to Citizens United, “it’s a bad idea. But the (Citizens United) case should be overruled.” Throughout the interview Stevens referred to the case as bad for the country and the future, and damaging to the basic principles of democracy, “which should be ‘one person, one vote’ and not (decisions hinging) on a bunch of money.”

Asked by Capehart why he had changed from the conservative he was considered when first named to the bench to his later identification as a liberal, Stevens said, “I didn’t change, the Court changed.” Every member appointed from 1981-91, he pointed out, was more conservative than his predecessor.Scales of justice

On electoral reform, another issue Stevens sees as imperative, he said “some things can be done at the state level. The right to contribute (to campaigns, etc) should have some geographical boundaries. Excessive photo IDs have never made sense.”

Stevens, in response to a question from Lithwick about “bombast and aggressive, ideological arguments” in the Court, said that “ideology is not good. That’s one reason I am against televising arguments, which would have an adverse impact on the deliberating process. I believe firmly in people knowing the institution, but not if it has an adverse effect on the institution itself.” Possibly because some member might be a camera hog, Lithwick interposed? “Any one of the nine. And I would include myself.”

Talking briefly about interactions among the justices, Stevens – known to have had a close relationship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – gave the impression that the Court does indeed function as intended. “I think John Roberts is a very good Chief Justice,” he said. “He executes the duties of Chief Justice well, although I disagree with some of his decisions.”

Stevens recalled stumbling over a few words while giving his dissent in Citizens United. “I said to myself, ‘You’re not as articulate as you were.’ And that’s when I stepped down.”

Fielding questions five years later, the renowned Justice showed no problem articulating his thoughts. Including the need for electoral reform – and the need to overturn Citizens United.

Choosing a better death

Could dying be better?

By now most people acknowledge that there are “good” deaths: peaceful, with minimal pain, at home surrounded by loved ones – and “bad”: pain-filled and prolonged, often for months or years and more often than not in a hospital or other institutional setting. The movement toward “good” death – legalized medical aid in dying – has been growing for decades in the U.S., but has been gaining momentum and attention in recent months.

Liner.2Robert Liner MD, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist, gave an informative update on the movement at a recent University of California San Francisco grand rounds. Liner is one of four patient plaintiffs in a California lawsuit which would make that state the sixth to legalize physician aid in dying, and a longtime supporter of leading end-of-life organization Compassion & Choices. The suit is also joined by three physician plaintiffs.

Liner, whose cancer is in remission, said he would personally prefer to avoid death altogether. “But along with birth, dying is a universal experience. It’s what we all do.” And equally universal, he noted, is the wish to make that experience a little more compassionate, a little closer to what most of us would choose.

Liner outlined the current status of California SB-128, the End of Life Options Act, now working its way through the senate. While granting terminally ill, mentally competent adults the right to ask their physicians for life-ending medication, the bill would also establish safeguards such as requiring assessments by multiple physicians and repeat requests for the medication made at least 15 days apart. A similar law in Oregon has proven valuable in many aspects over the 18 years in which it has now been in place, Liner said. Death W Dignity newspaper

He cited a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of the Oregon law’s first decade which found that since passage of the law Oregon has seen improved training for physicians in end-of-life care, an increase in individuals’ completing advance directives, improved pain management and rates of referral to hospice and an increase in number of people dying at home.

Putting the better-death movement in historical context, Liner referenced a significant case several decades ago that sometimes goes unnoticed. In 1991, he explained, New York physician Timothy Quill published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine describing how he had prescribed barbiturates to a dying patient when her leukemia reached a point at which she no longer wanted to live. A grand jury subsequently declined to prosecute. Quill later became one of the plaintiffs in a case that wound up reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. And in 1997 the Court let stand a New York law prohibiting what was then called physician-assisted suicide, ruling that there is no federal constitutional right to die – effectively turning the issue back to the states.

Five states – Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico now allow physician aid in dying, Liner explained. California’s efforts to become the sixth include a campaign launched last year by Compassion & Choices and the lawsuit filed early this year.

Scales of justiceLiner distributed copies of the April edition of San Francisco Medicine, the journal of the San Francisco Medical Society, in which he and two of the other physicians involved in the lawsuit explain their support for legalized aid in dying. “Collectively, we represent almost a century of medical practice, teaching and research…(and) probably most relevant is our extensive experience caring for dying patients,” write lawsuit plaintiffs Liner, Donald Abrams, MD and Marcus Conant, MD in San Francisco Medicine.

The lawsuit is backed by national disability rights advocacy group Disability Rights Legal Center, Liner explained, and cites a number of reasons why aid in dying should now be legalized. While some arguments – such as privacy and liberty interests – are complex, one seems fairly straightforward: California penal code section #401, which makes it a crime to aid or encourage someone to commit suicide (a very different situation from a dying person’s wish to shorten his suffering), was written more than a century ago. Before dying shifted from being commonly a home event overseen by the familiar family physician to hospitals or other institutions where the large majority of Americans now spend their final days and weeks. Before medical technology made it possible to prolong life, often far past any “life” many would choose.

Liner, and millions of other Americans, believe choice in dying should rest with those who are dying themselves.

 

 

The Human Face of Human Trafficking

chained wrists

Suppose, just for a moment, you are a 13-year-old girl who has been trafficked in America, the land of the free.

You’ve been brought to the U.S. – kidnapped, sold by your impoverished family, picked up from the streets of some land where girls have no value – and prostituted. Or more likely here, you’re a very unlucky American child victimized by traffickers. As a result of this tragic history, you are pregnant. Or, you survived God knows what only to become a 20-something victim of human trafficking – which now leaves you pregnant.

You should be forced to carry this pregnancy to term? Excuse me?

This is the human face of the human trafficking bill currently being held up in the Senate. Texas Senator John Cornyn’s “Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking” bill would “boost support for and protection of victims of human trafficking” – unless they happen to get pregnant. Once they become pregnant, that support and protection disappears. Tucked away within the multi-page piece of legislation is a stipulation that abortion could not be paid for with these funds.

It’s the old Hyde Amendment thing – the bill passed late in the 20th century that sent women’s reproductive rights straight back into the 19th century with the stipulation that never a federal dollar would be paid to help them end unwanted pregnancies.

Some young trafficking victims might still seek help, since there are now exceptions in cases of rape or incest. But the fact that the victim herself would bear the responsibility for proving the circumstances of her pregnancy is an insult added to egregious injury.

Human faces get lost in congressional rancor. Senators accuse one another of subterfuge and betrayal. Republicans accuse Democrats of one thing, Democrats accuse Republicans of another. Very little gets done. And in it all, the human faces disappear: faces of mere children who never had a break, of women of every age who deserve a life.

If they had voices, those faces might say, “Remember me?”