Category Archives: Human Rights

Beatriz lives

I’m really happy that this woman lived.

Beatriz is a 22-year-old mother of one. She waited months for the government of El Salvador – a highly Catholic country – to approve a medically necessary abortion. They would not approve, even though Beatriz’ fetus was non-viable. Many people, including myself, signed a petition by Amnesty International to change the government’s decision.

In the end, the government didn’t approve of the abortion. However, the fetus became old enough that doctors could deliver it and it would count as a “birth.” The baby died within hours (it was missing most of its brain), and Beatriz is recovering.

I’m happy that Beatriz lived, but I’m angry that this ever became a problem. El Salvador’s laws on abortion are the kind of laws that organizations like the Catholic Church would like to have in America. Even though there’s no evidence that such laws do any good whatsoever, people still push for them to become reality. (For a look at the harm that El Salvador’s abortion laws do, see this harrowing report from the NY Times.)

As someone who used to be anti-abortion, I can say that many abortion opponents do not display half of the humanity that is displayed in that NY Times article. We are taught by our religions or our cultures to think in absolutes, to ignore grey area, and to believe something because somebody told us to. We should never make decisions for other people based on so little understanding of their experiences. Doing so leads to the death of women with hopes, plans, fears, lived experiences, and social and familial ties to others.

If anyone disagrees, I’d love to hear what you think here or in private (you can email me through my Google+ profile).

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Filed under Catholic Church, Human Rights, Morality, News, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Standing at a crossroads

It was only last month that the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, in which two boys raped a girl while she was unconscious, and seemingly an entire school community played a part in publicly shaming and harassing her via social media. The case was notable for its demonstration of rape culture, as well as the cruelty and insensitivity of mass numbers of people.

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week, a disturbingly similar case was reported in Canada. 15-year-old Rehtaeh (ruh-TAY-uh) Parsons was allegedly gang-raped by four boys at a party. The boys took pictures, and distributed them in their school and community. Rehtaeh was then relentlessly bullied and harassed via social media. 17 months later, at the age of 17, Rehtaeh hung herself.

It’s hard to know how to contextualize or understand these tragedies. Teenage suicides due to bullying have reached seemingly epidemic levels in the past few years, and the details of each case are always appalling. According to Rehtaeh’s mother, one of Rehtaeh’s rapists was giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile” in the picture of him raping her. Somehow the circulation of this picture resulted in Rehtaeh being harassed. As a classmate explains in the article above, students at her school were “putting the blame on Rehtaeh.” I don’t know what on earth they were blaming her for, but apparently her faults were enough to justify unrelenting harassment, in the form of boys asking her to have sex with them since she “had sex with their friends,” and girls texting Rehtaeh just to call her a slut. The mind boggles at the level of cruelty and insensitivity. Is there not a point at which even a callous person has a moment of conscience, and declares “this has gone on long enough – I won’t be party to it any longer”? Sadly, we know from cases like this that if those moments of conscience do come, they are too few and far between.

The next question then is what can we do about it.

To begin with, a great deal of educating needs to be done on the subject of rape. Many people frankly do not know much about rape – what it is, who it is perpetrated by, what emotional scars it leaves. The popular discourse is full of comments from people who think that if you penetrate a woman’s vagina with your finger it isn’t rape, or that if a person is drunk it isn’t rape, or that as long as she didn’t say “no” (regardless of whether she had the chance) it isn’t rape. A high school English teacher, Abby Norman, writes about the time she discovered this moral confusion among her own students. Her class was discussing the Steubenville rape case:

I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.”

Well there you have it! The girl was out cold – clearly anything you do to her couldn’t be considered an assault!

Norman continues…

These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.

Clearly, our teenagers need to be having these conversations now.

And they are done a disservice by adults who minimize the consequences of rape, as many news organizations did in their coverage of Steubenville, or who perpetuate the myth that rape is committed only by evil criminals who will stop at nothing. Most rapists are their victims’ friends, boyfriends, neighbors, or classmates – people they know and trust. Most rapes are committed by people who could have acted better, had they been taught more about compassion and less about entitlement. We know that telling rapists not to rape works. So let’s do that, and not accept any attempts to distort the issue.

There is also the need to take bullying more seriously. From the description of Rehtaeh’s case, it sounds like there was no small number of students making hell for her over the fact that she was raped. You mean to tell me that her school knew nothing? They were able to do nothing? Throw an assembly! Sit the entire school down for a talk! There couldn’t have been a more important teachable moment than the time when an entire community gangs up on a child. Let no one repeat the lie that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. The results are in on that experiment, and it is hogwash. How many more children have to take their lives, or come close to it, before adults decide that we are not going to let this happen?

The hard-to-face truth about the bullies and the rapists that we’ve seen in the international media is this: they’re normal teenagers. They aren’t monsters, or psychological outliers. They’re the kids we knew growing up – our neighbors, our friends, and our classmates. They are a manifestation of human possibilities. Here’s Amy Norman again:

It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.

So we have to teach them.

Adolescence is a formative time in a young person’s life – every teenager will make decisions about what paths to take. We need to do a better job of pointing the way.

Image source: Youtube

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Filed under Bullying, Human Rights, News, Psychology, Rape, Women's Issues

President Jimmy Carter writes about women and religion

I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status  of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,

…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.

And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.

Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

How about this passage?

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Or this?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.

Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.

On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.

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Filed under Freethought, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion, Women's Issues

If you read one thing this week…

On the anniversary of his wife’s assisted suicide, Eric MacDonald is in excellent form on the subject of assisted dying. This cannot be shared enough.

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Filed under Assisted Dying, Government, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion

Protecting a student’s right to make anti-gay statements

Following up my previous posts on free speech, we have a case involving the ACLU and a student’s right to wear a T-shirt with an anti-gay message.

Anti-rainbow

The front of Seth Groody’s T-shirt.

Wolcott High School in Connecticut designated April 20th a Day of Silence in order to raise awareness of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. On that same day, junior Seth Groody wore to school a T-shirt depicting a rainbow with a slash through it – an anti-gay statement. School officials forced him to remove the T-shirt.

The ACLU has pointed out that this is unconstitutional, and they’ve asked school officials to guarantee that students’ rights to free speech are not infringed in the future.

“The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech, which is naturally the kind of speech that will always need protection,” said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.

“The impulse to suppress ideas that we find unpleasant is antithetical to freedom and democracy. That’s why the ACLU of Ohio stood up in 2006 for the rights of students to wear T-shirts supporting same-sex marriage and the ACLU of Connecticut must stand up in 2012 for the rights of students to express the opposite sentiment.”

This is the right thing to do. I, too, am vehemently against anti-gay sentiment, but if people are to be free to express good ideas, then they must also be free to express bad.

The only exception I would make is the exception that US case law already makes – if speech becomes so frequent or disruptive that it infringes on the rights of others, then it becomes harassment, and it is no longer protected under the First Amendment. If a great number of students at Wolcott High came to school wearing anti-gay shirts, that would arguably create an oppressive atmosphere towards LGBT students, with negative consequences for their psychological wellbeing. Anti-gay bullying is a big issue in American schools these days, and it isn’t to be taken lightly. However, if only a handful of students are openly expressing anti-gay sentiments, then the answer is for students and teachers who disagree to raise their voices higherand to repudiate the idea that there is something wrong with being attracted to members of the same sex.

(via the Friendly Atheist)

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Filed under First Amendment, Free Speech, Government, Homosexuality, Human Rights

Obama thinks it’s reasonable to kill Americans without trial, but won’t tell us why

There was an eight-page article in the New York Times yesterday entitled, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will. The article contains quite a number of excuses and loopholes the administration has found to justify morally- and legally-questionable actions. Innocents can be killed in the line of fire, even if we are not at war. All military-age males in a strike zone are automatically designated as combatants, so we cannot say that we killed non-combatants. The US has a veritable take-no-prisoners policy in order to get around the tricky issue of detaining someone without trial.

This even applies to American citizens. From the article:

[Anwar al-Awlaki’s] record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

“Due process” now consists of the executive branch deliberating about whether you should die or not. We have rewritten the rules to suit our needs.

Still, my mind is not made up about the administration’s actions. It is possible that some of them are morally justifiable -by which I mean they are consistent with the goal of creating an international human society in which people have their basic liberties. Perhaps it is reasonable to kill terrorists in other countries without trial in order to protect innocent lives. However, I am not convinced. I tend to think that the rights guaranteed by the American constitution are there for a good reason, and I tend not to trust people who break the rules and then invent justifications for it later. Humans have done this throughout history; very seldom has it looked noble in retrospect.

In choosing not to release, among other things, the fifty-page Department of Justice memo which gives legal justification for the killing of Awlaki, Obama makes it appear as if he has something to hide. If the administration thinks it is reasonable and good to practice indefinite detention, or to kill American citizens without trial, then let them state their case for it openly, and let the nation debate it openly. This is a democracy, and our ability to scrutinize the actions of our leaders is paramount to keeping power in the hands of its people.

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Filed under Crime and Punishment, First Amendment, Government, Human Rights, News

Why harassment isn’t free speech

One of the limitations on free speech in American public schools is when speech becomes harassment. What constitutes harassment, and why is it a good idea to put limits on this sort of behavior?

Here is an interesting example from a high school in Nova Scotia. Granted, Canadian law isn’t American law, but it’s the case that I care about. A student named William Swinimer was suspended for wearing a t-shirt to school with the slogan, “Life Is Wasted Without Jesus.” Now this, alone, would not be an actionable offense in the US or in Canada. In a previous post on student speech, I discussed students’ rights to express all sorts of potentially offensive ideas via their dress (one student wore a Jesus costume to his school’s “Fictional Character Day”). Swinimer, however, had been repeatedly preaching his religion and telling other students that they would go to hell. He was, it seems from the report, disrupting the school learning environment and making it more difficult for other students to learn. As a result, he was ordered to stop wearing the offending t-shirt (which he had worn every day for several weeks). When he continued to wear the shirt, Swinimer was suspended for five days.

Is this the right approach? It seems to me that the distinction between speech that should be protected in schools (including speech that is unpopular or offensive), and behavior such as the above, is a valid one to make. The Washington chapter of the ACLU has an article explaining why behavior such as Swinimer’s constitutes “harassment,” and why it should be restricted:

Students do not abandon their rights to freedom of speech at the classroom door. A school should allow students to speak freely so long as their speech does not substantially interfere with the educational process or the rights of other students. However, certain conduct may be prohibited in a school setting even where it could not be punished in other settings.

For example, it does not violate freedom of speech when teachers require that students stop extraneous conversations and pay attention in class; this form of student speech interferes with the educational process. In the same way, harassment of students by other students interferes with the operation of the school and infringes on the rights of the harassed students to enjoy equal treatment under law and equal educational opportunity. Schools have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination and harassment, and this goal may be pursued in a manner that does not abridge the right to freedom of expression.

In a previous post (linked above), I discussed why free speech, and therefore the free exchange of ideas, is important. It makes our society better to be able to say what we think, and respond to ideas that we find false or pernicious. Censorship does not solve problems. Harassing individuals, however, and interfering with their ability to learn is a problem, and should rightly be prohibited. In certain cases where harassment or bullying of a group is particularly prevalent or severe, we have an even greater responsibility to see that those students are protected, lest something terrible happen. This is why it was disgusting last November to see Michigan Republicans attempt to pass a law to let school bullies off the hook if they acted out of a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” Against a national backdrop of anti-gay bullying and teen suicide, Republicans wanted christians to have free license to disparage students for being gay.

So to return to the current issue, while I defend William Swinimer’s right to express offensive beliefs in school, I think it’s good to draw the line at pestering other students and disrupting the learning environment.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

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Filed under First Amendment, Free Speech, Freethought, Government, Human Rights