I (might) heart New Mexico

Flag-map of New Mexico
Flag-map of New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Mexico is, so far, batting 500: the good citizens of Albuquerque voted down (on November 19) a ballot measure that would have denied women the right to an abortion after 20 weeks. Now a case is underway in a New Mexico district court to establish whether a dying citizen has the right to hasten his or her death with the aid of a physician.

On the surface, the two issues might seem to have little in common — other than both being in New Mexico and involving the two primary causes with which I’ve been concerned for the past several decades. But they are at the heart of similar social justice concerns: individual autonomy, the individual woman’s right to control her own body, the individual of whatever gender, race or religion to choose a humane and compassionate death. They are opposed by the exact same groups: those who say they want “less government” — yet would involve the government in these most personal and private matters, and those who say they want religious freedom — yet would have their own religion dictate to everyone else.

Sanity prevailed in Albuquerque last month. Late term abortions are the most difficult and painful of decisions, and account for only a tiny fraction (one or two percent) of all abortions. But the people who put the issue on the ballot saw this as one more chance to chip away at the already diminishing right to a safe and legal abortion in the U.S.

One can only hope that sanity will prevail again. The end-of-life case now being argued was brought by a 49-year-old woman named Aja Riggs who has advanced uterine cancer, and two physicians who want to be able to prescribe medications – without fear of prosecution – to terminally ill patients wanting to end life on their own terms. Riggs’ cancer is currently in remission, but she has gone through aggressive treatment and extensive periods of terrible pain and suffering and says, “I don’t want to suffer needlessly at the end.”

Would any of us? Would you?

Most of us would feel that decision – what to do as we face life’s end – is one we’d prefer to make with our loved ones and our physicians and without governmental interference. Just as many of us – well reflected in the Albuquerque vote – would prefer having women make their own decisions with loved ones and physicians and without governmental interference.

Maybe reason will win again – a win for New Mexico and the rest of us.

A little thankfulness

English: Cornucopia
English: Cornucopia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Thanksgiving starts, as it’s done for nine years, with the Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service — this year at the Buddhist Church. (Past services have been at churches, synagogues and last year the Mormon Stakehouse; it’s a learning experience and a lovely one.) And because thankfulness is indeed good for the soul, here are just a few of the things I’m thankful for… or not:

While the remarkable folks at places like St. Anthony’s continue to feed the hungry, Thanksgiving Day and every day, for which we can all be thankful, it’s hard to be thankful for Congressional Republicans who voted earlier this year to cut some $40 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which millions of Americans count on just to have enough to eat every day. But I’m thankful to live in a democracy and hopeful that a focus on the common good will eventually prevail over today’s focus on the one percent.

I am thankful for the slow but steady progress of the cause of death with dignity in this country. And that is thanks largely to Compassion & Choices, a fine organization if there ever were one. I’m not just thankful, but proud to have worked long and hard as a C&C volunteer for more than a decade.

Closer to my heart today is the cause of reproductive rights, partly because those rights are being relentlessly eroded. I remember so vividly what it was like to be a woman without such rights that it leaves me thankful beyond measure for those working so hard to protect them. People like –

Cecile Richards and everyone else connected with Planned Parenthood. Vilified because abortions are provided at some clinics (a tiny percentage of the services offered,) Planned Parenthood is now defending those who need insurance coverage for contraception. “Put simply, birth control is basic, preventive health care that millions of women rely on every day,” Richards wrote in a recent email. “Over 99 percent of sexually active women use birth control at some point in their lives, for a wide variety of reasons. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are now required to cover contraception with no out-of-pocket cost, a landmark step for women’s health that gives many women access to affordable birth control for the first time. (But) now a handful of out-of-touch, mostly male employers want to take that coverage away — and force their own beliefs onto tens of thousands of employees…”

In other words, a fertilized egg must be protected at all costs… including the cost of women’s health? Go figure. It’s headed to the Supreme Court, and reason, sanity and women’s health are likely to lose. So I’m thankful that Planned Parenthood is here at least to fight the battle.

Or others, like –

Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien, whose recent letter to the New York Times pointed out one simple, obvious truth: “Catholics in the United States have abortions and support access to abortion services at the same rate as other women do.”  Many of my Catholic friends are weary of themselves being vilified for a belief they do not hold — just because church officialdom insists on valuing their fertilized eggs more than themselves.

The Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Service always includes a reading of President Abraham Lincoln’s (somewhat tedious) proclamation of a national day of Thanksgiving, urging us all to be grateful for our multiple blessings “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.” Some things haven’t changed in the past century or so. But listening quietly to the historic proclamation, surrounded by a bunch of Americans of every imaginable race, creed and political persuasion, somehow makes one hopeful that human rights of all sorts — daily bread and individual choice to name a couple — will eventually win out.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

Falling for Simon Winchester

The Luminaries & The Men who United the States
The Luminaries & The Men who United the States (Photo credit: Pesky Library)

Simon Winchester came to town with his latest book, The Men Who United the States, and OK, I would just follow him right on out except for the inconvenient existence of Mrs. Winchester, to whom he seems quite fondly attached. Well, Mrs. Winchester plus my rather strong attachment to my own excellent literary husband.

But it’s hard not to love Simon Winchester.

It’s also hard not to love his books — extraordinary explorations of people, places and events. Having just published one slim 160-page nonfiction book of my own after three long years of work, just trying to get my mind around the scope of his productivity is daunting.

The best thing about having Winchester around, though, is the sheer joy he brings along. He is unabashedly pleased with his country; despite all those identifications as “British writer” or “award-winning English author,” he’s now a citizen of the United States. So the new book, he says in his still decidedly British accent, is here  because “America has been a bit down on itself. I wanted to remind people, from a new citizen’s viewpoint, that this (country) is a great success.”

Winchester undertook “this great sort of plum pudding of a book,” he told a charmed audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, not just because of his enchantment with his new home country (he and his wife now live on a farm in Massachusetts) but also thanks to the curiosity he’s had about the place ever since a trip here in the early 1960’s. “I set out to hitchhike each of the contiguous states with 200 crisp $1 bills in my pocket,” he says, and at the end of his journey from Washington to Maine, “I had $182 left.” It is possible that Winchester’s expectation of humankindness in his fellow humans tends to evoke reciprocity, or it may just be that his infectious curiosity translates into cash. Whichever, his readers are the beneficiaries of it all.

Winchester was curious, for example, about the number of cities and towns named ‘Paradise.’ (There are a dozen or more, depending on your sources and your census parameters.) Among others he found Paradise, Florida, a retirement community that might be named in optimistic expectation, and another particular favorite, Paradise, PA, “right next to Intercourse.” Each, Winchester reported, had been spoiled somewhat “by the depredations of history… except for Paradise, Kansas. In that prairie paradise Winchester was told he should stay with the patriarchs, “I am not kidding you: John and Mary Angel.” Mary, it turns out, had a cherry tree in the back yard, went out and picked some cherries and baked a pie. Which resulted in their guest’s “eating cherries in Paradise with the Angels,” and it shouldn’t get much better than that.

With Winchester, though, there’s always a better story — or at least another story — ahead. Elaborating on his citizenship experience, he told of stumbling on the  first question, “What’s the national anthem?” by blurting out “God Bless America.” Only to be forgiven, he says, with the response, “We so wish it were.” As opposed to “the unsingable — unless you’re Beyonce” Star Spangled Banner. The stories kept pouring forth (…”my job,” said Commonwealth Club host and question-poser John Zipperer, when Winchester asked if he were going on too long, “is just to keep you talking”) with endless curious and remarkable factoids and data — but without notes.

A few plums plucked from his plum-pudding book: Thomas Jefferson, with a 1785 ordinance, made lawful the radical notion — since land in the Mother Country had belonged only to royalty and recipients of their largesse — that Americans should be able to own land. An obelisk at the edge of “the broken-down town of East Liverpool, Ohio (a show of hands indicated no one in the audience had heard of East Liverpool, once known as the Crockery Capital of the U.S)., serves as the starting point for the N/S and E/W lines organizing our land, the point having been set by the first and only Geographer of the U.S., Thomas Hutchins. Who knew? You might also not have known about another early American, Clarence King, whom Winchester describes as “a small, bearded, WASP, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, quite sexually energetic; he simply loved women — but not white women.” King spent his last 20-odd years — odd in more ways than one — married to a former slave named Ada who believed him when he said he was a light-skinned African American Pullman porter named James Todd. With her he raised five children (“two of them inexplicably white”) on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge while keeping his day job as a WASP geologist on the other side.

The audience appeared ready to let Winchester go on for a few more hours, and he certainly seemed up to that task, but Commonwealth Club one-hour-limit protocols prevailed and Zipperer finally banged the gavel. But not before Winchester expressed pleasure at being in San Francisco, because his next project, already getting underway, “is a big, fat book on the Pacific Ocean.”

If Simon Winchester comes to your town, grab a ticket; meanwhile you might want to grab a copy of The Men Who United the States at your favorite bookstore.

Who’s fighting for reproductive rights?

lisaalone1AC-TI-VIST: Vigorous advocate for a cause. Or, Lisa Lindelef (among a lot of others. )

As Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion rights, turned 40 early this year, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans want the law to stand. Those who believe otherwise, though, have been working to make abortion access difficult in many states, and are reportedly preparing a case that will lead back to the Court and potential repeal of Roe v Wade.

Enter the activists. They include the staff and countless volunteers for Planned Parenthood, the forces of groups like Trust Women Silver Ribbon campaign, the people of National Abortion Federation, National Organization of Women and…

NARAL Pro-Choice America. NARAL Pro-Choice is the one that’s drawn the interest and energies of Lisa Lindelef, one of the panelists on the Commonwealth Club of California’s October 17th program, Women at Risk: What’s Ahead for Reproductive Rights. She’ll be adding the perspective of a long-time activist to that of other panelists; if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, come join the discussion. Lisa currently serves on the board of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, whose mission is “to support and protect, as a fundamental right and value, a woman’s freedom to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices through education, training, organizing, legal action, and public policy.”

About her personal motivations, and decision to work with NARAL, Lisa has this to say:

“I’ve been involved with the pro-choice and reproductive rights movement since before Roe, ever since I saw young women I knew “disappear” and never reappear.  As choice gradually, and now increasingly, has become threatened by restrictions designed to weaken the Roe decision without actually undoing it, I decided it was time to put serious time and resources into the fight.  The pro-choice coalition has many admirable and steadfast members but NARAL Pro-Choice America has been, and remains, the political leader of the pro-choice movement.  With its combined state and federal organization structure, it is uniquely positioned to lead the fight to protect a woman’s right to choose.

Since 1973, safe and legal abortion has been offered by physicians across the U.S., including members of Physicians for Reproductive Health, and through clinics maintained by Planned Parenthood and other groups such as the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta, GA and Washington. Those who oppose abortion rights have been whittling them away, state by state, through restrictive laws and regulations, putting women with unintended pregnancies often at considerable risk; having been one of those women in the days before 1973, I know the risks.

Which is why I applaud the activists for choice like Lisa Lindelef.

Peace Day quietly came & went

Dove peace
Dove peace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In case you missed it, the International Day of Peace was celebrated recently. Its official date was September 21, and the word is there were “festivals, concerts, a global Peace Wave with moments of silence at noon in every time zone, and much more.” But I think the word wasn’t spoken very loudly.

In 1981, when Peace Day was unanimously and officially established by the United Nations, there were plenty of signs it might not easily gain traction. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated — which brought us that “peace through strength” business, demonstrated by bombing Libya and selling arms to Iran for the Contras. President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Egypt and a few months later Israel annexed the Golan Heights. It’s been pretty much downhill ever since.

Still, Peace Day ought to have its day. In areas where it does get celebrated there’s a lot of dancing in the streets, lighting of candles in windows and — most peaceful of all if you ask me — moments of silence. It’s hard to commit violence when you’re keeping quiet. Or, for that matter, if you’re dancing in the streets instead of blowing up things.

I think we shouldn’t give up on Peace Day. We now have the word from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying he has some interest in peace, and our President Obama saying the U.S. would like peace, and maybe Iranian-American relations would be a good place to start. Mr. Obama admitted right off that Peace Day wasn’t always historically possible. “The idea that nations and peoples could come together in peace to solve their disputes and advance a common prosperity seemed unimaginable” before the U.N. came into being, were his exact words.

In his address to the U.N. (quoted above) Mr. Obama zipped through an extensive list of warlike actions and circumstances in which the U.S. as well as just about every other country on earth has hardly seemed bent on achieving peace of any sort. But I do like his closing paragraph:

“I know what side of history I want to the United States of America to be on,” our president said.  Essentially, the side that maintains freedom and equality for all. “That is why we look to the future not with fear, but with hope.  And that’s why we remain convinced that this community of nations can deliver a more peaceful, prosperous and just world to the next generation.”

So let’s hear it for Peace Day. Even if it’s not yet quite gotten its day.

Finding common ground with Mr. Putin

I was talking with my new friend Shanelle recently (a good new friend to have, here’s your introduction) about a conversation she had with a friend who opposes access to abortion.

“I started with points we agree on,” she says. “We agree we both want children to be loved and cared for. We agree on use of contraceptives and family planning. We disagree on access to abortion — but we do have those things in common to build on.”

It occurs to me this principle is a pretty good one, especially after reading Mr. Putin’s personal letter to me. OK, it wasn’t strictly personal to me, but Russian President Vladimir Putin did specify in his recent letter in the New York Times that he was speaking directly to the American people, so that’s me. Probably you too. And despite the fact that Mr. Putin and I do not have a huge amount of things in common, I found a sizable list of points of agreement. For instance:

“Insufficient communication between our societies?” For sure. I’m willing to bet there are vast numbers of Russian grandmothers who, if they could communicate with American grandmothers, would have a primary mutual interest in keeping our grandchildren out of battle zones. Given a chance to communicate with each other, we could hammer out a way to do this. Absent that chance, we would applaud our leaders if they will please find a way to keep our grandchildren out of battle zones.

“No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations.” Goes almost without saying. What else have we got?

“There are few champions of democracy in Syria.” Yep. Sad, but I think we can agree on it.

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” What a concept. You could get agreement on this from the majority of grandmothers, mothers and women in between. Probably also a lot of guys.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Now we’re getting a little touchy. But if you are honest with yourself, we might agree on this point too.

I rather liked Mr. Putin’s closing zinger: “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” Amen, Vladimir, amen.

Abortion back in Supreme Court? Scary.

US Supreme Court building, front elevation, st...
US Supreme Court building, front elevation, steps and portico. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new challenge to women’s reproductive rights could soon be heard by the Supreme Court, according to an insightful report posted by Linda Greenhouse September 4 on the New York Times Opinionator. The Court may decide whether or not to hear the case (Cline v Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice) by this fall, and its current make-up is unlikely to come down on the reproductive justice. It’s a scary scenario.

Scary because the case is going to be billed as “protecting women” while no one with a brain can fail to see it for what it is: a new attempt to make abortion virtually impossible for women in the U.S. A little sleight-of-hand interpretation of an old FDA ruling will translate to ending the use of RU-486. Greenhouse explains it better, but that’s the gist of it: medical abortion will cease to be available if anti-abortion forces win this case. State regulations continue to limit access, clinics continue to close; you don’t have to do much math to realize that reproductive rights are disappearing across the U.S.

We’ve been here before:

On one side is a woman. On another side is pregnancy tissue which is, in Greenhouse’s apt description, the size of a pencil eraser. Some of us believe the woman should have the right to choose what happens to that tissue within her body. Others of us believe it is already a life which must be protected at all costs and the woman be damned. Unfortunately, if access to safe abortion is again denied, women will again be damned. Damned to dangerous attempts to end unwanted pregnancies, or to “forced birth.” That “forced birth” phrase was used by a woman attending a recent reading of Perilous Times, who added, “We used to call that slavery.”

Whatever you call it, that tiny bit of pregnancy tissue is the real focus of Cline v Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, not the drug which can be used to cause its removal. The anti-abortion forces who value that bit of tissue over the woman carrying it have absolutely no concern for the woman. What they do have are political clout, irrational zeal, unscientific arguments, religious fervor and a Supreme Court likely to lean their way.

It’s a case to watch.