Behind Bars for Being Pregnant and HIV-Positive

From RH Reality Check, by Margo Kaplan

In May, 2009, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock sentenced Quinta Layin Tuleh, who was about five months pregnant, for the crime of having fake immigration documents. While both the federal prosecutor and defense attorney urged the judge to sentence Tuleh to 114 days, which would allow her to leave prison with time served, Judge Woodcock doubled the recommended sentence and exceeded federal sentencing guideline recommendations for the sole purpose of keeping Tuleh in prison until she gave birth. Judge Woodcock's sole justification for the extended sentence is that Tuleh is HIV-positive. The judge felt that - despite the fact that Tuleh had arranged for care outside the prison - keeping her in prison would best ensure that she would take anti-retroviral medication to reduce the chances of transmitting HIV to her child in utero. In issuing this decision, Judge Woodcock has created disturbing precedent that could allow the state to keep people in jail based solely on the fact that they have HIV or are pregnant.

To understand how misled Judge Woodcock's decision was, it is useful to understand a little about how HIV can be transmitted from mother to child, or "vertically." HIV can be transmitted during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. While all babies born to women living with HIV will have HIV antibodies when they are born, 75% of those babies will "serorevert" and will not develop HIV infection. Thus, without any medical intervention, the rate of transmission is, on average, 25%. Taking antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and birth or opting to have a cesarean section can reduce the rate of transmission to less than 2%. The best course of treatment to ensure the health of the mother and her child always depends on the individual woman's medical history and circumstances, and should be a decision she makes after consulting with her physician.

Judge Woodcock's decision ignores the complex factors involved in a pregnant woman's medical treatment decisions - as through being HIV positive makes one incapable of reasonable decision-making - and glibly equates being HIV-positive and pregnant with committing a crime. When reading the sentence, he makes clear that his sole reason for keeping Tuleh in prison was that she was HIV-positive and pregnant, and that, had she been pregnant and not HIV-positive, he would release her with time served. He reasons that he could keep Tuleh in jail "to protect the public from [her] further crimes."

Judge Woodcock bends himself into bizarre logical contortions to justify his decision. He states, "I don't think the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is technically a crime under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault." Frustrated with what the law actually forbids, Judge Woodcock invents a new category of actions that, while not "technically" crimes "under the law," he still has the authority to punish with imprisonment. However, if judges could hold people in prison for any "direct" and "likely" action they found morally reprehensible, they would have unlimited discretion. This is precisely what the rule of law is intended to prevent.

While some states do, indeed, criminalize HIV exposure, Judge Woodcock does more than this - he imprisons a woman for the mere possibility that she might transmit HIV in the future. His reasoning essentially criminalizes being HIV-positive and allows the state to jail anyone with HIV simply because they have HIV and are capable of transmitting it to another. It classifies anyone with HIV as a threat to society who can be incarcerated at the whim of the state to protect public health. As Regan Hofmann eloquently explained in her May blog, criminalizing HIV transmission contributes to the stigmatization of HIV and actually harms prevention efforts. The imprisonment of those with HIV based on the mere fact that they might transmit it to others is even more abhorrent as a matter of law and policy.

Some might be tempted to think that the judge in fact is helping Tuleh by ensuring she at least has access to medications. This argument might have some merit if Tuleh were asking the judge to keep her in jail because she was concerned about deportation or her ability to access care. But the fact is-and Judge Woodcock recognized-Tuleh did not want to remain in prison, much less give birth in prison. Her attorney stressed that Tuleh had arranged for medical treatment outside of prison at a facility-unlike the prison system-specifically equipped to meet her medical needs.

Whatever Judge Woodcock's protective intentions, using imprisonment to coerce pregnant women to make the medical care choices we think best is an outrageous abuse of the system. By keeping her in prison because he felt it would be best for the fetus, Judge Woodcock was unable to see and treat Tuleh as a competent adult with the ability and the right to make her own medical decisions. Instead, he reduced her to a fetal container-an obstacle to providing the care he wanted for the child she was carrying. Not once in the transcript of the sentencing proceeding does Judge Woodcock consider Tuleh's own medical care or her health interests. She is guilty of being HIV positive, while her fetus is, in his view, "a wholly innocent person."

Judge Woodcock's decision perpetuates the myth that people with HIV are somehow "other"-more reprehensible, less responsible, and deserving of whatever state intervention helps protect the "innocent" remainder of society. It also furthers the view that pregnant women lose their autonomy and their rights by virtue of their pregnancy, and that pregnancy should enable the state to detain a woman if the state disagrees with the care she is choosing for her own body. While Tuleh may have had counterfeit immigration documents, having HIV and being pregnant does not make her any less "innocent" or any more deserving of punishment.


Does Abortion Prevent Child Abuse?

“Does abortion prevent child abuse? In 1973, when abortion was first legalized, the United States child abuse cases were estimated at 167,000 annually. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 903,000 children were victims of abuse during 2001, a number more than 5 times greater.”

-from Life Report Podcast

Correlation is NOT causation. The population of the US increased from 211,909,000 in 1973 to 285,669,915. While those numbers are not enough to explain the difference, perhaps a shift in social attitudes can. Even just a generation or two ago, it was common to use more negative force and excessive discipline on children (for example, how common was spanking while you were growing up vs. now?). Mandated reporters (people who, due to their close work with children, are legally obligated to report suspected abuse) were not established until 1974 when the Child Abuse and Treatment Act passed. This act also begun federal funding to all 50 states to prevent, investigate and assess child abuse cases.

Further, it would be interesting to see how these statistics define “child abuse.” Unfortunately, some children deemed victims of child abuse are ultimately victims of poverty. Stories come to my mind of families torn apart due to unsafe living conditions that were a direct result of landlord neglect and the ghetto-ization of low-income people or parents who were working but poor and couldn’t afford all their bills and to put food on their table.

Lastly, any person who would claim “abortion prevents child abuse” is not clearly thinking through their pro-choice logic. Yes, in some select cases a continued pregnancy would have resulted in the child being abused, but ultimately this claim is anti-woman, assuming there are some women who just shouldn’t be parents- almost mandating abortion in certain cases. Hard to prove tangents just take away from our message. If we are to ever have a truly united force for reproductive justice, we must squarely keep the focus for abortion on the woman and what she wants for herself, her family (if applicable) and her future.


" 'Pro-Life', that's a lie."

Dr. George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the USA who performed late abortions, was shot and killed while attending church this morning.

"The chilling fact of Dr. Tiller's death comes after years of being terrorized: he'd been shot before (in both arms); had his clinic bombed, flooded and vandalized; received decades of death threats; wild lawsuits; and was the unfortunate target of conservative media that hounded him. He'd also been stabbed--and went back to work the next day." -Anna Clark for RH Reality Check

Personally, I just want to say condolences to Mrs. Tiller, Dr. Tiller's family and friends with hope and love for the people affected by and organizing for reproductive justice and abortion rights.

We may be entering scary times. Much love to all you out there.


Deadly Intersections- by pattrice jones

From the blog, superweed.

The Huffington Post reports that Glen Beck and other conservative media personalities are blaming undocumented immigrants from Mexico for the spread of swine flu into the United States. Given that the true vector — tourists returning from Mexican vacations — has been widely publicized, there’s no way to read this other than as racism and jingoism.

It’s easy to laugh off Glen Beck tearfully portraying flu-weakened residents of Mexico City rushing to cross a border hundreds of miles away, but the potential repercussions are not so funny. What if people in the U.S. do start dying of swine flu and Glen Beck fans swarm out to beat up Mexicans in retaliation?

Here’s another problem: As long as people are fired up about allegedly infectious “illegal immigrants,” they’re not looking at the true source of the problem: factory farming.

This is an example of what feminist scholars call the “intersection of oppressions.” When different kinds of oppression intersect, they tend to compound and fortify each other, sometimes leading to hybrid forms of oppression, just as different strains of flu virus can comingle and mutate to create a more virulent and intractable disease.

In this case, racism and national chauvinism are shields for speciesism and environmental despoliation. Even if this particular pandemic panic fizzles out, the problem of virus mutation on factory farms will remain. Many virologists and public health experts believe it’s a matter of “not if but when” an influenza pandemic will strike. By not looking at factory farms, we not only leave literally billions of animals in anguish but also neglect a public health crisis that, when it hits, will fall most heavily on people living in poverty. Which, because people of color represent a disproportionate share of people living in poverty, brings us back to racism.

See how it works?

We’ve seen this before with disease, most notably with HIV/AIDS. First, prejudice against low-income injection drug users kept public health officials from investigating the epidemic of “junkie pneumonia” in the 1970s. As I wrote back in 1992:

Here’s how I imagine things would have been different if such an investigation had occurred back in the 1970s: (1) researchers would have discovered the HIV virus and its routes of transmission many years before they did, and (2) this earlier discovery would have saved many lives now lost; (3) no one would have wasted energy on inane and homophobic concepts such as GRID (Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency - the first name given to the syndrome now called AIDS); (4) otherwise rational researchers would not have investigated “the gay lifestyle” as a potential causal factor; (5) the media would not have been able to label AIDS as “the gay disease;” and (6) increased anti-gay violence would not have resulted.

And, of course, besides inhibiting scientific research and sparking gay-bashing, the homophobic designation of AIDS as a “gay disease” made straight people, including the sexual partners of injection drug users, initially resistant to AIDS-prevention education. While HIV transmission rates declined among gay men, they shot up among people living in poverty and especially among heterosexual women of color.

See how it works? Gay men of all races were hurt by the racism that led doctors to ignore junkie pneumonia. Then straight women of color were hurt by the homophobia that branded AIDS as a “gay disease.”

It gets deeper. We now know that HIV (human immodeficiency virus) evolved from SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) in much the same way that the flu virus now sickening people evolved from swine and bird viruses, initially making the jump to people in Africa. But, given the same kind of invective we’re seeing now about swine flu, anti-racist activists were understandably skeptical of and justifiably worried about the repercussions of an African origin of AIDS. Thus racism made the quest to understand the evolution of a virus a political powder keg.

It gets deeper. Stereotyped associations of Africans and monkeys combined with the taint of sexual perversity attached to AIDS by virtue of its imagined association with homosexuality, leading to truly sick racist depictions of AIDS originating in bestiality. This made many of us even more unwilling to even consider the possibility that HIV evolved from SIV in Africa. I’ll admit that, at the time, I was one of the ones arguing that we ought to just quit trying to figure out where HIV came from and concentrate on arresting its spread.

Let’s break it down. In fact, what happened was that SIV got into human bloodstreams easily and regularly because people who hunt and butcher primates for what’s known as “bush meat” get scratched and cut in the process. The blood of the butchered animal gets into the cuts and scratches, setting the stage for the comingling of viruses. This is just one more instance of animal diseases making the jump to people because of our penchant for killing and eating members of other species. But we couldn’t see that because of the psychedelic kaleidescope of racist-speciesist and homophobic imagery swirling around HIV/AIDS.

Sweep that away, and we could look, perhaps productively, at how the exploitation of animals always turns back to bite us. We could look not only at zoonoses (animal-based diseases) but also at how the construction of the category “animal” as an inferior creature without rights creates the circumstances that allow us to “dehumanize” people in order to exploit them. We could look, perhaps productively, at the poverty and environmental despoliation that lead people to go into the bush looking for chimps to butcher for meat.

To solve big problems, we have to be able to look dispassionately at all of the facts. But intersecting oppressions makes it difficult to look at some connections.


More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops

By LAURIE GOODSTEIN for The New York Times

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two months after the local atheist organization here put up a billboard saying “Don’t Believe in God? You Are Not Alone,” the group’s 13 board members met in Laura and Alex Kasman’s living room to grapple with the fallout.

Loretta Haskell, a board member of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, is also a church musician. “I am not one of the humanists who feels that religion is a bad thing,” she said.

The problem was not that the group, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, had attracted an outpouring of hostility. It was the opposite. An overflow audience of more than 100 had showed up for their most recent public symposium, and the board members discussed whether it was time to find a larger place.

And now parents were coming out of the woodwork asking for family-oriented programs where they could meet like-minded nonbelievers.

“Is everyone in favor of sponsoring a picnic for humanists with families?” asked the board president, Jonathan Lamb, a 27-year-old meteorologist, eliciting a chorus of “ayes.”

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.

“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which has about 150 members on the coast of the Carolinas. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”

Polls show that the ranks of atheists are growing. The American Religious Identification Survey, a major study released last month, found that those who claimed “no religion” were the only demographic group that grew in all 50 states in the last 18 years.

Nationally, the “nones” in the population nearly doubled, to 15 percent in 2008 from 8 percent in 1990. In South Carolina, they more than tripled, to 10 percent from 3 percent. Not all the “nones” are necessarily committed atheists or agnostics, but they make up a pool of potential supporters.

Local and national atheist organizations have flourished in recent years, fed by outrage over the Bush administration’s embrace of the religious right. A spate of best-selling books on atheism also popularized the notion that nonbelief is not just an argument but a cause, like environmentalism or muscular dystrophy.

Ten national organizations that variously identify themselves as atheists, humanists, freethinkers and others who go without God have recently united to form the Secular Coalition for America, of which Mr. Silverman is president. These groups, once rivals, are now pooling resources to lobby in Washington for separation of church and state.

A wave of donations, some in the millions of dollars, has enabled the hiring of more paid professional organizers, said Fred Edwords, a longtime atheist leader who directs an umbrella group, the United Coalition of Reason, which plans to spawn 20 local groups around the country in the next year.

Despite changing attitudes, polls continue to show that atheists are ranked lower than any other minority or religious group when Americans are asked whether they would vote for or approve of their child marrying a member of that group.

Over lunch with some new atheist joiners at a downtown Charleston restaurant serving shrimp and grits, one young mother said that her husband was afraid to allow her to go public as an atheist because employers would refuse to hire him.

But another member, Beverly Long, a retired school administrator who now teaches education at the Citadel, said that when she first moved to Charleston from Toronto in 2001, “the first question people asked me was, What church do you belong to?” Ms. Long attended Wednesday dinners at a Methodist church, for the social interaction, but never felt at home. Since her youth, she had doubted the existence of God but did not discuss her views with others.

Ms. Long found the secular humanists through a newspaper advertisement and attended a meeting. Now, she is ready to go public, she said, especially after doing some genealogical research recently. “I had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution so I could speak my mind,” she said.

Until recent years, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry were local pariahs. Mr. Silverman — whose specialty license plate, one of many offered by the state, says “In Reason We Trust” — was invited to give the invocation at the Charleston City Council once, but half the council members walked out. The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity would not let the Secular Humanists volunteer to build houses wearing T-shirts that said “Non Prophet Organization,” he said.

When their billboard went up in January, with their Web site address displayed prominently, they expected hate mail.

“But most of the e-mails were grateful,” said Laura Kasman, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The board members meeting in the Kasmans’ living room were an unlikely mix that included a gift store owner, a builder, a grandmother, a retired nursing professor, a retired Navy officer, an administrator at a primate sanctuary and a church musician. They are also diverse in their attitudes toward religion.

Loretta Haskell, the church musician, said: “I did struggle at one point as to whether or not I should be making music in churches, given my position on things. But at the same time I like using my music to move people, to give them comfort. And what I’ve found is, I am not one of the humanists who feels that religion is a bad thing.”

The group has had mixed reactions to President Obama, who acknowledged nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. “I sent him a thank-you note,” Ms. Kasman said. But Sharon Fratepietro, who is married to Mr. Silverman, said, “It seemed like one long religious ceremony, with a moment of lip service.”

Part of what is giving the movement momentum is the proliferation of groups on college campuses. The Secular Student Alliance now has 146 chapters, up from 42 in 2003.

At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the “Pastafarians,” named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.

Andrew Cederdahl, the group’s co-founder, asked for volunteers for the local food bank and for a coming debate with a nearby Christian college. Then Mr. Cederdahl opened the floor to members to tell their “coming out stories.”

Andrew Morency, who attended a Christian high school, said that when he got to college and studied evolutionary biology he decided that “creationists lie.”

Josh Streetman, who once attended the very Christian college that the Pastafarians were about to debate, said he knew the Bible too well to be sure that Scripture is true. Like Mr. Streetman, many of the other students at the meeting were highly literate in the Bible and religious history.

In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”


Edward Abbey quote

"Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul."