Our Kingdom, Our Country

I cannot shake this piece by Deborah Kampmeier.  Each segment is profound, but I keep pondering her fierce opening, because I find it difficult, unsettling, confusing.  I find myself not sufficiently decided, maybe valueless, maybe wishy-washy, or spineless, or just too lazy to connect with my own deeply held truth. 

Kampmeier states:

My body is in a rage, a fury, a storm of hate. So fucking sick of all this talk about uniting our country, about having compassion for Trump supporters. I don’t want to find common ground. I don’t want to build fucking bridges.  That’s like saying I have to marry my rapist and carry his fucking child to term.  I don’t care to live with my rapist.  I don’t care to ever see him again.  I do not want to open my door and invite my rapist to sit at my table or shove his cock back in my mouth or cunt or ass. No, I am not building fucking bridges.  Yes, build a fucking wall, but not between Mexico and me.  Between me and you mother fucking racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, misogynistic rapists, and the rest of you who condone them.  Stay out of my home.  I have no interest in sharing a country with you.

I’m still hesitant to call myself a Catholic convert, maybe simply because I remain unbaptized until later this year, but maybe because being a convert is supposed to create in one a profound conviction. I think of the famous Catholic convert Dorothy Day, of her certainty that led to profound actions that helped so many.  Maybe she was afraid at times, but in my mind Dorothy Day, post-conversion at least, was never afraid.  In my mind at least, Deborah Kampmeier is never afraid.  She knows her truth, she will ferociously fight for it, and she will sacrifice without hesitation for it.  

She will listen too, but some things are non-negotiable.

I read Kampmeier’s piece and I thought about my developing faith and the commitment I am moving towards.  Reading the gospels, I am inspired again and again by Jesus’s commitment to nonviolence, to the disenfranchised, to self-reflection, to human autonomy, and to the assertion that while our actions matter and have results and consequences, we all live by divine grace.  Reading the gospels, I hear a call for unity, for sacrifice, for reaching outside ourselves, for taking great risks, knowing that although we may not have worldly comfort, we are held.

From this place, I initially rejected Kampmeier’s words.  But they stayed with me.  For days, they echoed.  They haunted me because they were true. “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” (Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on LyingOn Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978).

One out of six women is a survivor of a completed or attempted rape (RAINN). One in three women have been a victim of physical violence carried out by an intimate partner (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).  

The Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) is a wonderful piece of legislation that gives federal funds to help protect against intimate partner violence.  Importantly, it provides on the ground support to counselors and shelters, amongst many other things. I don’t think I thoroughly understood this until this weekend, when the amazing woman leading the training at our local battered women’s shelter said “VAWA pays my salary.” As the saying goes, knowledge is only rumor until it lives in the muscle.  

I think of Jesus’s call to care for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the orphans, the widows.  I think of how he picked up no stone when the patriarchy brought the adulteress before him (the male offender in the crime is of course missing), how his request for self reflection led others to also remain empty handed.

Joe Biden was instrumental in getting VAWA first introduced and then reauthorized. Conservative Republicans were against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Folks like Senator Burr of my home state of North Carolina voted against it. And then people re-elected him.  People re-elected many of the others who refused to offer support for this invaluable piece of legislation.  

No, I am not building fucking bridges.  Yes, build a fucking wall, but not between Mexico and me.  Between me and you mother fucking racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, misogynistic rapists, and the rest of you who condone them.  Stay out of my home.  I have no interest in sharing a country with you.

I believe in working with people who think differently than me.  I believe in communication, in trying to see one another, in trying to enter into a covenant of shared values that is just and compassionate, that does the human spirit justice, cares for our earth, and generally makes life better for folks than if such a covenant did not exist. 

Sometimes I think I should let this “woman stuff” go. I should really just focus on the environment, I think, that’s where we can all come together and collaborate in practical, applied steps to create a world where we can physically live in harmony.  If we focus on these practical efforts to preserve our lived environment, we’ll come to know and understand each other, we’ll work together.  The sexual violence, the racism, the hatred of the other will simply evaporate.

Then I hear calls like the one in Kampmeier’s powerful prose, and I realize, no we cannot with these wounds in our hearts and bodies and psyches, stand beside our brothers and sisters who commit violence against us and heal through working together. Working together will never be enough.  We have worked together through how many social movements, we have built how many bridges, and still the violence remains perpetuated and denied.  

Repentance must come before reconciliation.

The systems of violence that teach some people that other people do not have bodily autonomy or rights of their own are the same systems of violence that teach us our earth can be scorched and contaminated without any repercussion to us.  

I cannot let the “woman stuff” go.

In thinking about unity, I also think about what it means to be entering a church that refuses to ordain women, whose bishops are viscously politically active in fighting a woman’s right to choose even her own birth control.

At the front of my nearest Catholic Church stands St. Anne, Jesus’s grandmother. In her hands she holds a book from which she teaches her daughter (who is destined to become the Holy Mother of God) to read.  In the front of this patriarchal establishment, the image of a grandmother teaching her daughter to read is preserved for centuries in alabaster.  The grandmother of God is literate. The mother of God is literate.  The grandmother of God is a teacher.  They are both two human women. Parishioners pray at their feet. (I acknowledge, for many of them, the leap to reality, to human flesh and blood, is less easy-perhaps impossible-to venerate).

In my own, more modern, Catholic church, a central piece of art consists of three women carved out of marble.  According to scripture, these three women, Mary Magdalene among them, were the three present when our crucified God rose again. A dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, first welcomes one into the worship space.

In Catholicism, I see a tradition that has consistently acknowledged the profound power of women. I see a tradition that has advocated for and admired women’s education. I see a God who will not be turned solely into a man but who remains present in the Holy Trinity of the Christ, the Creator, and the Holy Spirit. This acknowledges the immense size and flow of God, and it does so in a way that never eliminates a woman’s form, a woman’s mind, and a woman’s human strength and limitations from the holy symphony.

All this, of course, also exists under, or within, or in spite of, or perhaps even as a result of the patriarchy that is also the tradition of the Catholic Church.  The patriarchy that sent women who were too pretty, or too single, or too pregnant, to work in laundries where they suffered physical and sexual abuse.  The patriarchy that continues to abuse children and shame women for their sexual choices.  The patriarchy that advocates for laws that lead to women dying instead of pregnancies ending.  The patriarchy that largely turns a blind eye to those dying of AIDS as the result of its contraception policies.

I don’t care to live with my rapist.  I don’t care to ever see him again.  I do not want to open my door and invite my rapist to sit at my table or shove his cock back in my mouth or cunt or ass.

I agree with Kampmeier’s words.  I agree, I do not want to find unity with the hate, the violence, and those who condone (and even celebrate) it.  But I agree with the message of the gospels that I am learning and each time converted by anew. But what does it tell us to do?  Nonviolence, certainly, yes, I will stand by that.  But, what more?

I am not writing to answer that question for anyone.  I am writing to amplify Kampmeier’s fierce cry that she will defend her daughter’s kingdom, her daughter’s country.  

I am a 30 year old woman.  I have a young son and a husband, both of whom I adore.  In my womb I have a child growing, whose gender remains unknown.  I do not believe that this is solely about the female sex.  This is about surfacing from a culture of domination.  I look at my best friends, women, gay men, trans men.  They are my heart, my smile, and indeed often my very breath.  Each day the generosity of their friendship saves me from suffering some small death.  I will defend their kingdom, their country.

This is not abstract. Kampmeier’s piece reminded me of this.  The battered women’s shelter training reminded me of this.  The statistics reminded me of this.  We are all people.  I believe we all make up the body of Christ, each one of us a child of God.

But sometimes this perspective allows us to forget that we are the ones “at-risk,” under attack, called immoral, made illegal.  Or if it is not us, it is our child, our best friend, our partner, our favorite coworker, our neighbor.  Or if we cannot say even that, it is someone, someone who also has the hairs on her head numbered.  

We must keep our vision very clear, and in defending this kingdom, this country, we must be very clear about what does not fit.  There is no “who” who does not fit, but there are behaviors that are absolutely impermissible, just as there are behaviors we ourselves must cultivate.  In our calls for unity, we must holdfast to these truths, rejecting no one, but requiring true repentance (and here I mean a change of heart) in order to allow collaboration.  

My body is a home to violence.  She is not your country, she is mine.  You may visit but you will not take root here.  You have not learned how the darkness feeds.  When you descend into her cavernous depths, she will show you there is nothing to fear.  The walls are damp.  There is the dripping sound of the beginning of time.  And the wailing grief and howling rage of every woman, ever, who can no longer be silenced. These women’s wails are buried here, echoing through generations of DNA. The endless injustices are in every cell of my body.  Dig around for these gems of rage, these gems of fury, these storms of hate.  Dirt and clay under your nails, mud covered body and pubic hair clotted with blood.  This is an excavation. Not to bring light to the darkness but to integrate darkness into the light.  Do not be afraid of my rage.  She is a storm that will clear every lie in her path.  She is not afraid to speak for every woman who has had her tender vulva, clitoris, labia, vagina ripped asunder. She is holding every abandoned piece of self, every single piece of our feminine selves we betrayed in order to survive the patriarchy. Now it must all be reclaimed.

My Commitment to Civil Rights is Not Identitarian: Thoughts on Strategy Following the U.S. Presidential Election

Standing up vocally for people’s civil rights is not “identity politics,” uplifting voices of people who long ago would have gotten due credit had they met the identity requirements of the hegemonic power structure (which is now violently trying to maintain ground before its eventual demise) is not identity politics.

The left should stop adopting the same language the right has spent decades using to describe us. No, Hillary did not say “I’m a woman, vote for me.” She said “I’m the most qualified person to ever run for this position, vote for me.” That she and some of us (including myself) celebrated that this was also a milestone for women is not identity politics.

Tonight, the last children’s hospital in Aleppo was bombed, and we have no one to turn to to lead us to a solution in this crisis. I do not know what to do.

Last night water protectors fighting to save our life sustaining environment from extractive industry had their lives threatened by plumes of freezing water, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, and toxic chemicals shot at their bodies. I do not know what to do.

And today a person continues to flounder at trying to figure out how he is supposed to do a job he lacks the skills to do, and in the process he surrounds himself with people known to promote the idea that some people as a result of their ethnicity are lacking in humanity. I do not know what to do.

But I do know that standing up for civil rights is not identity politics. I do know that uplifting the voices of the marginalized is not identity politics. I do know that celebrating our peacemakers is not identity politics.

My allies will define themselves; the names they are called will not prevent them from lifting their voices and sharing their beautiful agenda.

The right can keep its identity politics, its name calling, its labeling, its reducing of the speaker to her race, her sex, her religion, her audacity to envision a future where civil rights are respected and yes where diversity is honored and given the space and reverence this requires (nature shows us this is so critical, yet so many remain unconverted by that miraculous system even when our lives depend on it).

Friends, please, do not yet again get suckered into believing the names they call you. Do not abandon those who need you because their immutable characteristics make them a target for being dismissed as identitarian any time they speak. Please, be allies. I am trying. Please try.


(Header Image from a page in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts)

Safety Pins

I have heard a lot of criticism about the safety-pin solidarity action, and I fully agree that a safety-pin in and of itself is not enough. But I wanted to share an experience I had last night.

For those who are close to me, you may know I am currently going through the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (if you want to tell me how this is a terrible decision, please, go ahead, have at it, but I’d respectfully ask we have this conversation by email or phone because it requires individual attention and nuance to communicate effectively regarding a complex and personal decision such as this).

Last night, I attended one of our meetings, where we ask questions, and pray and reflect. Honestly, I did not want to go to that meeting last night. I felt like I didn’t want to see all the symbolic actions of Catholics, I did not want to hear about “tradition” in a Church that has brought such violence on so many people, I thought I would die if I had to hear someone describe God as “the Father,” I did not want to try to relate to people who for all I know voted for Trump because of a single issue: abortion.

But for some reason I went. And it was a wonderful, nourishing conversation last night, and I felt deeply connected to and happy to be conversing with the people sitting in that room with me. I felt my commitment to non violence and standing up for the oppressed and the marginalized fortified and supported by community, but also I felt a renewal of strength within my own spirit.

But the first thing that happened when I walked into the room, with my grouchy attitude, was I sat down feeling somewhat alienated and alone and distrusting, and then I looked up to listen to the person speaking.

And he was wearing a safety pin, big and awkward and shiny silver on his black shirt.

The priest was sitting there with his safety pin on, the woman who leads the group and who works for the church and who is a cradle Catholic, was sitting there with her safety pin on.

I was not expecting the exhale that came from seeing those two people sitting there, people who had decided they wished to give a signal to the people in that room for whom they are spiritual and community leaders, a signal to say this is not okay, these election results are not ok, we stand with our muslim brothers and sisters, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, people of color, Jewish people, immigrants, we as Catholic leaders want you to know we stand against what just happened and we stand for you.

The exhale was a release of my fear, my fear that human connection is futile within the context of oppressive and archaic structures. Honest human connection is never futile. Structures change. We build, dismantle, and rebuild them. We being the word this all hinges on.

One could say the priest would be a better ally by leaving his post than by wearing a safety pin (which I do not agree with but am happy to discuss again in email or over the phone), but we all work within our communities, as they are given to us, or as we have created them.

I cannot be certain what caused me to be unafraid to share my opinions and questions last night (some of which, as you can imagine, may be controversial in such a setting), but I do know the safety pin did to some degree make me at least willing to trust that I was in a space where I could give true connection a shot, where I needn’t hold my breath and write folks off and give up on the idea that maybe we had important things to share and learn form one another.

Creating a Climate of Support

Some thoughts about my own experience and the current dialogue around abortion in America:

1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. I have always been a committed advocate for choice, but my unplanned pregnancy has strengthened my commitment to advocating for reproductive choice. When I found out I was pregnant, a mere 4 days before I was to sit for the New York bar exam, I knew with every cell of my being that I wanted to move forward with that pregnancy and give birth to what was to become my child. I do not question women whose bodies, minds, spirits, and hearts told them the exact opposite. The message they received of “no this cannot be,” “this is not meant to be,” “this must end,” is no less legitimate than the message I experienced, and we must know women are fully capable of making the best decision based on the information and knowledge available to them. We must TRUST them.

But I wanted to share my second thought after finding out I was pregnant. That thought was: is this an acceptable thing to do as a young woman at the beginning of her career with 6 figures of student debt and no assets to her name? This is how my world answered that question for me:

1. My family, friends, and partner consistently demonstrated and verbally expressed they would support my decision to terminate my pregnancy or to move forward with it
2. Professional women took the time to speak with me about how my decision would impact my life, my career, and my ability to financially support myself and my family
3. Medical professionals explained to me with scientific accuracy how either decision would play out
4. MY STATE actively held policies that made CHOICE a reality by offering:
a. A state-supported PLANNED PARENTHOOD
b. Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women at 219% of the federal poverty line
c. A state-funded home health nurse available through the Nurse-Family Partnership who met with me weekly throughout my pregnancy and postpartum period
d. A Washington County Mental Health-provided prenatal and postpartum doula free of charge who also met with me weekly throughout my postpartum period and provided childbirth education classes
e. Medicaid that covered a homebirth midwife team
5. My boss and other staff at my place of work expressed and demonstrated that my pregnancy was welcome in our workplace and that I would have access to any accommodations I might need.
6. I was consistently treated with respect and dignity, including utmost respect for my autonomy and privacy

This is to say, my world mirrored back to me that I had true support and freedom of choice. But the reality is, a situation like the one I experienced is basically unheard of in the U.S. Vermont does an exceptional job at caring for pregnant women. I also was just downright lucky in terms of my work environment and my family and friends. And even with this dream of a situation, pregnancy and motherhood are still unbelievably demanding and challenging every single day.

But I want to highlight, the data is in and it clearly shows those states with the most laws restricting access to abortion are the same states scoring the lowest on maternal and infant health metrics and with the fewest policies in place to support and improve infant and maternal health.

Let women make their own decisions. Trust them to know what is best for themselves and their families. And if you are going to politically involve yourselves in the lives of pregnant women, let it be to support the resources they need to have a healthy pregnancy.

If you are anti-choice and you feel like you just can’t be heard, here are some things you can do that will truly save fetuses and help those women who want to carry their pregnancies to term but doubt if they have the resources to do so:

1. advocate for fact-based sex education
2. advocate for affordable, accessible long-acting birth control like the copper IUD
3. advocate for paid maternity leave
4. advocate for safe, affordable child care
5. advocate against domestic violence
6. advocate for a living wage
7. advocate for in-home health education programs
8. advocate for accessible, affordable midwife care
9. advocate for Medicaid expansion
10. advocate for breastfeeding accommodations
11. advocate for flexible work schedules and environments

This list is by no means exhaustive. There is so much we can do as a country to make this land a safe place for pregnant women and their families. I encourage everyone to do the work. Leave women to their choices. These are their bodies and their decisions. It is our job to love one another and make this world as safe and supportive and kind as we can. Next time you come across someone claiming to be pro-life with an anti-choice agenda, I encourage you all to shift the conversation to these policy goals and to point out that every resource spent trying to control women’s choices is a resource taken away from supporting pregnant women and infants. #trustwomen

“Because until she bleeds,”

Terry Tempest Williams frequently writes at the intersection of feminism and environmentalism.  For those unfamiliar with Williams, she comes from a Mormon background and the landscape of the western U.S. and has lost most of the women in her family to environmental contamination (more specifically to cancer likely caused by nuclear testing).  Her writing draws on each of these parts of her lived experience.  Tempest also recently purchased 1,750 acres to protect it from oil and gas development.

I recently revisited Williams’ essay in her wonderful book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice about birth control and choice.  The essay is a more condensed version of her earlier essay in The Progressive entitled “The Moment I Became a Feminist.”  Williams’ writes:

My body is my compass, and it does not lie…

No woman terminates a pregnancy easily.  No one who has ever felt life insider her can negate that power.  It is never a decision made lightly, without love or pain or a prayer toward forgiveness.

Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant.  Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now.  Which is why when a woman allows a man to enter her, it is not just a physical act, but an act of surrendering to the possibility that her life may no longer be hers alone.  Because until she bleeds, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life.  Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three.  Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds…

If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.

There is nothing abstract about giving birth.  There is nothing more sobering than for a woman to place her hands on her belly and wonder what is the right thing to do.  it is always about love.  It is never done lightly.  And there is nothing more demeaning to women than to have a man, especially a man we don’t know, define the laws that will govern our milk and blood.

If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.

Ohio’s Governor Kasich signed into law a bill on February 21, 2016 that will prevent state funding from going to Planned Parenthood, causing the organization to lose approximately $1.3 million in state funding.  There are 28 Planned Parenthood locations in Ohio, 3 of which provide abortion services.  These 28 locations serve women’s health needs at low or no costs, and they do so respectfully and compassionately.

I do not know that  Governor Kasich knows the weight of what he did.  I do not know that he realizes what it is to be a woman in search of affordable, accessible reproductive health care.  I do not know that he understands the intimacy involved in conversations about reproductive health, about how difficult it is to find compassionate care.

I do know that these individuals that do not understand an individual’s right to bodily autonomy are in the minority.  I do know that majority of Americans believe in keeping abortion legal, and majority of Americans #StandWithPlannedParenthood.  I also know these people attempting to legislate their religious doctrine do not represent all “people of faith.”  Organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (Ohio has a chapter, as do many other states) are speaking out about their commitment to compassionate and comprehensive women’s health care precisely because of their moral, ethical, and religious beliefs.

If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.

We must make sure they know; we must make sure they never forget; we must demand they love us differently.

“Older Feminists”: On Gratitude and Moving Forward

Note: any time you start talking about a type of “feminism” things get complicated- whose feminism? which wave? who does it include and what does it stand for?  For this post I’m using the same language as the author of the article mentioned in the first page.  Generally this blog comes from a place of intersectional feminism and writes using a reproductive justice lens.

Last night my sister sent me this article about being the mother of a young baby and a professional, about “older feminists”‘ relationship with children, about babies in the work environment.  It touches on a lot of the issues I have been thinking about lately and is a great read.

My mother is an “older feminist”.  She’s also a math professor with a PhD in mathematics.  During her career, she went to bat to get other women hired in her department and to get the pay she deserved when the men in her department who lacked PhDs and the experience she had were getting paid more and getting promotions.  She finally got the respect and pay she deserved, but she had to fight like hell for it.  This is to say I have immense gratitude for earlier feminisms as well as a close relationship with an “older feminist.”

Because of a rough economy and the lack of paid maternity leave in this country, I have also been spending a lot of time with my mother recently, and during that time I have learned a lot about how some things used to be when it comes to babies and the rearing of them.

For example, I choose to breastfeed, and this is a choice I continue to make each day and each feeding until the day I and/or my baby choose to do otherwise.  There was a time when the breastfeeding rate was abysmally low in the U.S., when breastfeeding was rare, and breastfeeding in public virtually unheard of.  There was also a time before that when it was expected, demanded, forced, or just an unquestioned given.  A time when having a baby turned you into a food source, not by choice, but automatically.  For some links on the history of breastfeeding check this out.

Breastfeeding is hard work.  For many (if not most) it can involve a time of cracked, sore, and even bleeding nipples.  It can make you tired from all the energy your body uses to make milk.  It can involve mastitis, where suddenly you’re hit with the absolute worst symptoms of the flu for about 24 hours, leaving you incapable of doing much of anything other than sleeping and nursing your newborn.  It takes up a lot of time.  That being said it is also a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t trade that time I have with my baby for anything, and I think many (if not most) nursing parents would say the same.

But I cannot imagine it being something I was forced to do.

I am thinking of the women who were indeed forced to nurse other people’s children, “wet-nurses” as some called them.  The time, energy, and intimacy they gave out of force.  The time, energy, and intimacy they gave to children that were not their own– children essentially made of their bodies and flesh but who would in all likelihood reach social ranks from which they themselves were forbidden.  I am also thinking of the women who were forced to nurse their own children because there were not other choices or because it was what was expected.

I get why older feminists fought like hell to separate themselves from their children.  I think this was a necessary step.  People who have babies had to demonstrate they are not only a food source and care giver for their young, that they in fact remain independently valuable autonomous human beings.

Older feminists separated women from children and in so doing they made a few things very clear to me:

  • having a child should be a choice
  • breastfeeding should be a choice (and some women do not get that choice for many reasons including the inability to produce milk or a work environment that doesn’t afford them the time.  These women should have access to safe, nutritious options for feeding their babies.)
  • breastmilk has immense value
  • the time people spend with babies has immense value

Before that type of feminism (at least here in the U.S.) women having children, breastfeeding them, and caring for them were all taken for granted.  Like the clean air we breathe and the clean water we drink, this work was seen as a given resource, one that could be counted on.  That brand of feminism taught us these things are not a given, they are choices humans make, they are real services people choose to give.

There’s a lot of talking going on about how we value environmental services, how we can incorporate them into the market.  The President recently required federal agencies to account for natural infrastructure and ecosystem services in their decision-making.

Likewise, some people are having conversations about how to value the services of homemaking, child-rearing, giving birth, nursing- how to make sure these things count and how to make sure we as a society support them.  As a start, leaders are finally talking about paid family leave in major political forums here in the U.S.

Parenting in the Workplace is one organization working on addressing the question of what a world would look like where children come to work.  And as the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post suggests, to not allow people to bring their babies to work when there is no system of paid leave in place is really absurd and unreasonable.

I am starting back to work next month, and I am curious to see how this all will go.  But writing this now, I am saying visibility is crucial.  Our work as parents must be visible because that is how it will become counted, valued, and a part of our work environment in a way that makes sense for us.

I am wondering will I be brave enough that when it makes sense, I will say, “hey I need to work from home today because my baby needs me”?  Or when he’s quiet and my husband needs to go to a meeting and there’s no reason not to have him at work, will I say “my baby needs to be at work for a couple hours today”?  Will I apologize for when I need to go to a pediatrician’s appointment?

I hope I do a good job making this world better for all the people rearing children out there.  At least, I hope that most days I do my best.

Federal Funding and Fetuses: Our pregnancies, our babies, and their future

In the past 5 years, the number of children born with birth defects on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i has risen to 10 times the national rate.  The island is also where a handful of companies develop over 90% of the U.S.’s genetically modified corn. Of all the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i is home to the largest percentage of indigenous Hawaiians.  Talk about the intersection of environmental and reproductive justice.   This article details the predicament and is well worth the read.

Kaua’i attempted to give residents some measure of protection from the extreme pesticide exposure on the island’s west side by issuing Ordinance 960,  requiring public disclosure of spraying times, locations, and chemicals present, as well as buffer zones around places like hospitals, schools, and day care centers.  You’d think this would be a no-brainer, common sense, something everyone would want in order to protect our children and our elderly.  However, after a challenge by Syngenta, Pioneer, Agrigenetics, and BASF Plant Science, a federal district court ruled the law invalid due to state preemption issues.   The case is currently on appeal thanks to persistent advocates Ka Makani Ho’opono, Surfrider Foundation, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, and their Earthjustice attorneys.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the U.S. Congress leads a special investigation into Planned Parenthood because the organization provides a legal service.

The investigation of Planned Parenthood is a sham.  It’s about people believing women shouldn’t be allowed to make their own decisions when it comes to their reproductive health.  I know this for many reasons, but here’s the reason I want to focus on right now: carrying a healthy pregnancy to term in many locations across America is a constant battle because legal environmental harms threaten that pregnancy almost constantly.

Where’s our special investigative committee looking into the folks causing the environmental contamination that terminates all those deeply wanted pregnancies?  Look up all the chemicals known to cause miscarriages and birth defects, look up where they are made, look up what they’re manufactured for, look at how shockingly prevalent they are in our lived environments– acutely so in some locations.  And look at who makes them.  Where’s our special investigative committee looking into them?

There is no special committee investigating whether Syngenta, Pioneer, and other agribusinesses are killing fetuses and causing babies to be born with life-threatening defects despite physicians in acutely affected areas suspecting a causal connection.  Syngenta and most of the agribusinesses of its stature get significant federal assistance in the form of loans, grants, tax breaks, and other subsidies.  Yet when agribusiness destroys fetuses and causes babies to be born with their organs on the outside, there is no congressional committee investigating whether the U.S. should take away these companies’ federal funding.

Those killing babies and fetuses while receiving federal subsidies aren’t limited to the agricultural sector.  This great reporting by Rolling Stone details how a midwife in Vernal, Utah is sounding the alarm warning that fracking is causing stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects in her community.  This issue isn’t only affecting those living near gas wells in Utah.  As the article details, we’re seeing this issue in communities affected by fracking everywhere.  The environmental effects of fracking kill fetuses, or have detrimental effects on their health to the degree that babies are born with a host of defects, or born without life at all.

I repeat: these corporations are highly subsidized by the federal government.

Evidently the federal government doesn’t care about the fetuses these particular federally-funded organizations kill.  It doesn’t care about the pregnancies they terminate. Or at least it doesn’t care enough to create a special investigative committee to look into the operations of federally subsidized oil and gas companies and agribusinesses.  The protestors with their right-to-life signs do not gather around the fracking wells, or outside the offices of the oil and gas companies that own them.

We are how we spend are time.  The U.S. Congress is spending its time investigating an organization that provides people with health care that, despite activists’ hardest attempts to get its employees to do otherwise, has consistently followed the law.  If the U.S. Congress cares so much about fetuses, I am ready to see it interested in protecting all the fetuses lost and threatened due to careless, irresponsible corporate action.  That is a legal starting place for protecting fetuses.  They could even pass some constitutional laws to protect all those fetuses currently harmed or destroyed by toxic chemicals from one industry or another.

The right to privacy protects a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.  When a physician at a Planned Parenthood clinic performs an abortion, that physician is respecting a private decision made by the pregnant person.

When a company’s irresponsible conducting of business operations causes a pregnant person to be exposed to toxic chemicals that harm the growing fetus, the company violates that person’s body and removes that person’s right of choice.  The company violates the pregnant person’s privacy and the health and safety of the fetus and the pregnancy.

The attack on Planned Parenthood is a sham.  If America cared about babies, the priority would be on giving them a healthy environment to grow up in, on ensuring that healthy environment is going to be here when our generation is long gone.  If America cared about babies, it would start holding polluters accountable.

And as for us- what can we do?  Tell our congresspeople we will not tolerate this.  Picket the people causing these harms.  MAKE THIS ISSUE PUBLIC.  Tell everyone your pregnancy, your sister’s pregnancy, your friend’s pregnancy, our babies should not have to put up with this crap.  There is serious work to be done here.  A chemical known to cause birth defects and miscarriages should not be coursing through our veins, should not be in our water, should not be in our food, should not be in our placentas and breasts, should not be in our babies’ umbilical cords.

Tell them this will be fixed, demand that it is fixed, demand the people causing the problem be held accountable, do not demand the products requiring these chemicals, find alternatives, demand alternatives.

This is urgent.  Our babies are growing up and we are letting the chemical industry continue to invade our bodies and this world.  This is urgent.  Our babies must have better.  We must do better.

~Water. Drinking Water. Bathing Water. Water~

I started following Erin Brockovich a few months ago.  I recommend you do the same.

Who knew the state of drinking water in the United States was in such piss poor shape?

I spent some time in Medellin, Colombia last year.  Before I left this country, Amercans warned me again and again not to drink the water in Medellin.  I showed up (pregnant, mind you), and everyone assured me that Medellin tap water was fine for all the drinking, teeth brushing, and showering my heart desired.  It turns out the city long ago decided drinking water was a top priority and went about making a safe drinking water system — no small feat for a densely populated urban area in a developing country.  But they got it done, and the system continues to be a great success and source of pride for the city.

In just the past couple months of following Brockovich’s feed, I have learned of  the following:

As this great article by Emily Crockett at RH Reality Check points out, clean water is a reproductive health issue.  Often the bodies of pregnant and lactating women, as well as those of infants and young children, are not considered when officials announce warnings about the safety of drinking water.  After the chemical spill in West Virginia, officials gave the “ok” for people to drink the water.  Later they said “wait, pregnant women might want to hold off.”

Mothers are not an afterthought.  Mothers, in fact, are where human life begins.

The articles about the brain-eating amoeba in Louisiana insist the drinking water is safe to drink because the only way people are at risk of acquiring the deadly organism is by getting the amoeba up their nose.  Have the people issuing these warnings ever bathed an infant? Have they themselves ever showered?

As New York City attempts to deal with the Legionnaire’s outbreak in the Bronx it listens to experts saying the bacteria is a problem in cooling systems.  Yet we know the disease can also come from mist from showers and faucets.  And when a doctor recognizes this and expresses concern that the city is focusing on cooling systems instead of drinking water he loses his job.

Some reporting of the infant who died following a water birth as a result of exposure to Legionella are blaming the concept of water birth itself.  The details of the Texas incident suggest the midwives likely did not follow best practices.  However, reporting that fails to blame contaminated water and instead blames the idea of giving birth in water at all is missing the actual problem.

All this has me furious and disappointed.  This is a basic task.  This is ensuring America has clean drinking water — that all people in America have clean drinking water.  It’s a task you would think everyone could get behind.

But instead it’s like this doesn’t matter.  I have a friend who lived in an old house.  She got her baby’s lead levels tested- I’m not sure why, maybe this was protocol at her pediatrician’s practice.  They were elevated and the doctor suspected the old pipes were to blame.

I am sick of politicians not caring about America’s crumbling infrastucture.  I am sick of the USEPA not doing their job to carry out the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In her book Counting for Nothing, feminist economist Marilyn Waring explains the importance of day to day work– reproductive work she calls it– the act of doing all the things that must be done and done again to keep ourselves going: making food, cleaning living space, bathing children, things like that.

Well America needs to take some serious time to focus on reproductive work.  The drinking water must be kept clean; the pipes must be kept up and checked to be sure they haven’t become too corroded to be of any use in transporting fresh, clean water for people to drink; lead paint must be safely removed; new safe paints should be added.  The list goes on and on of basic tasks that must be done repeatedly.  It is the maintenance of a civilization.  America is slacking and its citizens are paying with their health and the health of their loved ones.

People need jobs? America needs more jobs?  Fix the crumbling infrastructure.  Make America safe for our mothers, our infants, our children.

Some people don’t think the government should supply jobs, don’t think our tax dollars should go to keep people employed.  I am happy to see our tax dollars go to paying people to do this necessary work.  But I also know we have to hold people accountable to make sure they are doing their job.

I encourage everyone reading this to find out where your water comes from.  To see if there are any violations under investigation.  Encourage your friends to do the same.  When you travel, be aware of each location’s water source.  Encourage your friends to do this too.

We are made of this environment we live in.  There is no separation between it and us.  We can be responsible and know that and accept that and act accordingly, or we can wait until we are forced to realize it due to the illness and suffering of our loved ones or ourselves.

There is no reason to wait.  We can take responsibility and work to make sure others do the same.  This is a big task, but we must be up for it.

Breastmilk and Baby Orcas: On Being a Mammal

My parents recently returned from a cruise to Alaska.  They came home raving about their on-board lecturer who passionately taught them about Alaska’s natural wonders as they cruised around on a giant boat that may or may not have been more environmentally friendly than the industry standard known for wrecking havoc on coastal environments, economies, and social systems (see this article from The Guardian and this documentary).

Of all the lectures, my parents enjoyed the lecture on the orcas the best.  In their retelling of the orca lecture, one fact in particular stood out to me:

An orca’s first born calf dies before it reaches even a few months of age because of the toxic chemicals it consumes through its mother’s milk.

This was a startling fact, particularly startling to a breastfeeding mother.  The lecturer explained all orca first-borns enter into this world only to swiftly depart it as a result of the contamination of their mothers’ milk, which is laden with PCBs, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals.  The first-borns’ exposure is particularly acute because of the years of toxic chemical build-up resulting from environmental pollution in the orcas’ diet.  According to the lecturer, subsequent orca babies may survive since the mother orca has released some of the toxic build-up through her first calf (male orcas tend to have shorter lives because they lack this elimination pathway).  Nevertheless, many subsequent orca calves also die due to toxic chemical exposure from their mothers’ milk.

I did some fact checking to see if the horrendous bit of information was true, and there appears to be a fair bit written on the topic suggesting it is indeed fact.

The same day, I came across this study, finding perfluorinated alkylate substances–“a widely used class of industrial chemicals linked with cancer and interference with immune function”–build up in infants by 20-30% for each month they are breastfed as a result of contamination of their mothers’ milk.  The authors recommend against breastfeeding exclusively for more than 3 months for fear of toxic chemical exposure.

Reminder:  We are MAMMALS.

Mammal: any of a class (Mammalia) of warm-blooded higher vertebrates (as placentals, marsupials, or monotremes) that nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands, have the skin usually more or less covered with hair, and include humans (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Like orcas, we are also mammals at the top of our food chain.  So it should come at no surprise that human breast milk is also contaminated by toxic chemicals that enter into our bodies primarily through our diets (which, however “natural” or “unnatural” they may be, remain 100% composed of ingredients coming from our environment!).  And like orcas, a human mother can expect her first-born child to have a higher intake of environmental contaminants from her breast milk as the result of bioaccumulation (NRDC).

Despite the little attention paid to this topic by the media and our government officials, some people have been looking into what is going on with human breast milk for years.  And as it turns out human breast milk contains all sorts of chemicals associated with a host of health problems, including DDT and its metabolites, bisphenol A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hexachlorobenzine, and the cyclodiene pesticides (dieldrin, heptachlor, and chlordane), as well as potentially toxic metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and others (Mead 2008).

This begs a couple questions:

  1.  Is breastfeeding still a good option for my child?
  2. What the hell are we doing poisoning ourselves?

Let’s start with the first question: Considering all the toxic chemicals found in women’s breast milk as the result of our contaminated environment, is breastfeeding still the best way to feed our young humans?

From the information I have been gathering, it appears the answer is: we don’t really know, but from the data we have, the known benefits of breastfeeding appear to outweigh the known risks.

In other words, epidemiology is tricky, gathering data on the long-term effects of a chemical substance is tricky, and gathering data on the long-term effects of exposure to a soup of chemical substances at relatively low-levels is super tricky. (Note: This all becomes a lot trickier considering the lack of financial support, industry-funded research, the skepticism surrounding environmental sciences in the U.S., and the lack of political will to focus on environmental health).  While  monitoring the makeup of the very sustenance of the next generation would appear to be a worthy undertaking for government, the U.S. lacks any type of breast milk monitoring program unlike other countries such as Sweden and Germany (Solomon 2002).

We know breastfeeding is amazing.  Its immune-boosting, disease-fighting properties sometimes seem comparable to the magic elixirs of fairy-tales.  But really, in some ways, the human body is just a beautifully evolved creation doing what it has evolved to do.  For example take this incredible breastfeeding fact: When a baby suckles, it creates a vacuum, through which the infant’s saliva enters into the mother’s nipple where the mammary glands read signals in the saliva that describe the infant’s immune status.  If the mammary glands detect pathogens, they instruct the mother’s body to produce antibodies that at then sent through the breast milk to the infant where they fight the infection (Katie Hinde, biologist and associate professor, Arizona State University and this great article on the miracles of breastmilk).

But, to continue the magic elixir analogy, someone dumped poison where the witch gathers her sacred herbs.  In the U.S. folks hesitate to talk about environmental contamination in general and real accountability is difficult to come by even in cases of acute contamination (see these cases in West Virginia and Pennsylvania).  So exactly who dumped the poison, where they dumped it, how they dumped it, how much they dumped, and what it’s made of is something we tend to explore as we see acute symptoms pop up and someone dares to connect the dots.  Thus, it wasn’t until 2015 that someone published a study on the accumulation of perfluorinated alkylate substances in infants as a result of consuming solely their mothers’ breast milk and we still don’t have a good sense of the effect of the presence of these contaminants on children’s health– but new research suggests the chemicals can have harmful effects at even the smallest amounts.

Using the precautionary principle, one might think, better safe than sorry, I might as well avoid breastfeeding my child .  But here’s the thing: there’s no escaping our environment.  Switching to formula comes with its own set of problems and doesn’t have any of the benefits of breastfeeding.  When you feed your baby formula you’re also exposing him to environmental toxins, through the water used to dilute the formula, as well as through the formula itself (interview with Dr. Gina Solomon).

Given the information we have, it appears the only solution to this conundrum is to continue to breastfeed your child, to support policies that support breastfeeding, and to demand your right to environmental health.  We have a fundamental right to family, to life, to liberty.  Yet this right is violated every day.  By reckless companies; by lackadaisical governments; by agencies that fail to regulate those under their charge because they have been captured by corporate interests or because they are underfunded and under-supported; by an apathetic and ignorant public.

This brings us to our second question: Why are we poisoning ourselves?

I have no idea.

This will be the resounding question echoed again and again throughout this blog.  And I am not certain that its answer is even particularly important.  What is important is that we stop.

In the case of breast milk contamination by industrial chemicals in our environment- the answer appears to be, because America is not interested in exercising the precautionary principle- we find it dumb.

Here in America, innovation is smart and exciting and clever and profitable.  Pausing to worry over how a particular innovation might affect our breasts, our growing children, our hormone systems, or the ability of our heart to beat is silly, obstructing progress, infringing on the liberty of others to create, to make money, to provide goods and jobs.

This way of thinking is wrongheaded.

We, as humans, have the ability to make new life, the social networks to nourish that precious life into the next generation.  This is a sacred thing, a right given to us as we enter this world, and a right we had better have sense enough to protect.

When we find industrial toxins in the breast milk we feed our children, we have been invaded.  We have lost our liberty.  They have no right to invade our bodies, to steal from our children their health.  It does not matter how many jobs they make, how many dollars they bring to the economy– the moment they invade our bodies we have lost.

Considering we as lactating women have already lost the battle given that standard, what is important is that we win the war.  It will take decades to clean up our environment.  It will take generations before a child is born free of industrial contaminants in her umbilical cord blood, generations before a mother can offer her child a breast free of industrial chemicals from which to eat.

Although chemicals long-banned in the U.S. continue to appear in breast milk, their levels are dropping.  However we are seeing a rise in polybrominated diphenyl ethers (most commonly found in flame-retardants) in breast milk.  These chemicals coat our clothes, upholstery, furniture, electronics, and plastic products, and exposure levels are at a level high enough to present serious health concerns.  They are known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens and associated with many other health problems (Solomon 2002, Breast Cancer Fund, State of the Evidence).

The EPA  has only recently begun collecting data on perfluorinated alkylate substances in our drinking water (EWG 2015), and there are seemingly endless chemicals with similar stories: chemicals we just don’t know enough about that are ubiquitous in our lives.

The Precautionary Principle can be stated this way:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.  It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” (Wingspan Conference 1998).

The U.S. does not apply the precautionary principle when considering human and environmental exposure to industrial chemicals.  The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), does not require a routine chemical risk assessment, leaving us without basic toxicity data for the industrial chemicals in our lived environment–the chemicals that are now in our breast milk, our bloodstreams, and the bloodstreams of our children. (Sachs 2011).

Perhaps this is the place to start.  We must demand the precautionary principle be the guiding principle in U.S. handling of chemicals.  We must demand a breastmilk monitoring program and routine chemical risk assessment.  We need to better understand the chemicals that have become a significant part of our environment.  We need to understand their effects on our bodies (and this must mean all types of bodies- too frequently studies ignore the bodies of lactating and pregnant women, of infants, of the elderly) and their effects on our ecosystems.  In the meantime, we must demand the institution of the precautionary principle, where the proponent of a potentially harmful activity must defer from acting until we truly understand the results of that action.  Our bodies and the bodies of our children are too important to make them pay the price of someone’s unnecessary and irresponsible actions.

Beginning at the Intersection

You have reached a virtual space dedicated to providing articles, imagery, resources, and discourse at the intersection of reproductive justice and environmental justice.  It is my hope this collection of information and the dialog that takes place here will lead to positive change in our physical world and our lived experiences; that it will make our world a safer place for women and children and for all people’s reproductive systems; and that it will lead to a safer, cleaner environment for all.

Let’s start with a few definitions:

Reproductive Justice: the right to have children, to not have children, and to parent the children we have with dignity (SisterSong).  For more information on the Reproductive Justice Framework please visit Sister Song‘s website.

Environmental Justice: the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (USEPA)

Law Students for Reproductive Justice and the National Women’s Law Center have put together a paper on why If You Really Care about Environmental Justice, You Should Care about Reproductive Justice.  The paper highlights some of the connections between the Reproductive Justice movement and the Environmental Justice movement, and discusses where the movements may currently work in opposition.

Yucca Bianca W.’s article More than Coincidence: Bridging Gaps Between Environmental and Reproductive Justice  (Bluestockings Magazine 2014) is a must-read on this topic, so please head over to Bluestocking’s Mag and read through it!