New Women of the World Publication Features Francophone Africa
In Senegal there is no law to protect women against marital rape. "Marital rape is a term that simply doesn't exist," says Codou Bop, a Senegalese women's rights activist with Groupe de recherche - femmes et lois au Senegal (GREFELS). She adds, "Laws don't always solve problems, but if there is no law it's as if you don't have the right to be free from such violence."
Bop is well aware of the laws (and non-existent laws) impacting women in her part of the world. She recently served as the regional coordinator for the Center for Reproductive Rights' newest publication, Women of the World - Francophone Africa: Laws and Policies Affecting their Reproductive Lives, which presents a comprehensive review of women's reproductive health and rights in seven Francophone Africa nations: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and Chad.
The project, which took almost two years to complete, was a challenging feat. "In many of those countries it's very hard to get access to written laws," says Center for Reproductive Rights international program staff attorney Maryse Fontus, who oversaw the project and edited the research contributed by women's rights organizations from each country. "This is the first time that all these countries' laws and policies affecting women's reproductive lives have been compiled in one resource. So it's not only a practical legal guide for rights advocates but it identifies problem issues in the region."
The 212-page report covers a broad range of topics. Each nation is examined in terms of the country's political framework, its sources for the governing laws, its customary laws and its policies on health, population and family planning. In general, the seven Francophone African nations share a lot of troubling similarities including restrictive abortion laws, high maternal mortality rates, high prevalence rates for HIV/AIDS, low contraceptive use and the continuation of harmful traditional practices including polygamy and female circumcision/female genital mutilation.
Women's legal status is examined in the context of their right to be free from discrimination. For example, in Benin, only men (not women) may ask for a divorce on the grounds of adultery.
A critical section on adolescents is included, especially as many of these nations permit adolescents to marry, which often results in early childbearing.
During the book's launch, which was held in Senegal in April, representatives from the featured countries discussed strategies for revising restrictive laws and adopting better ones. Benin, for example, still has a 1920 law that bans abortion and contraceptive advertising. Plans were formulated to meet with Benin's parliamentarians to explain how that law contradicts international human rights norms, such as those stated in the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty Benin has ratified.
Also discussed was a law banning sterilization in Cote d'Ivoire, where women often lack access to other methods of contraception. The punishment for persons performing a sterilization procedure is the death penalty. "It's very important that we get this and other laws that harm women abolished," says Fontus, "and instead, convince lawmakers to draft new laws that promote women's reproductive lives and well-being." As an initial follow up to the WOW report, Fontus is organizing a fact-finding mission to Benin to investigate the practice of forced marriages.
The Legal Age for Marriage*
In Mexico, Abortion Rights Strictly For the Books
Fourteen-year-old Paulina Ramirez Jacinta was raped last year by a burglar who has since been jailed. Under Mexican law, Paulina was permitted to terminate the unwanted pregnancy that resulted, and she was firmly set on exercising that right. Until opposition forces proved too fierce.
After Paulina was admitted by a public hospital for a first-trimester abortion, she was visited by unidentified anti-choice extremists who showed her graphic videos of abortions in a failed attempt to dissuade her. Then physicians at the hospital refused to perform the procedure for alleged conscientious reasons. So Paulina and her mother, Maria Elena Jacinto, appealed to Baja California's Attorney General Juan Manual Salazar Pimentel, the state's highest judicial official, for help. Instead he escorted them to a Catholic priest who told them that abortion is a sin.
But Paulina and her mother pressed on, determined that Paulina should not be forced to become a mother at such a young age and under such horrific circumstances. The attorney general reluctantly signed a new order for an abortion. However, shortly before the procedure was to take place, Paulina and her mother were frightened out of it by the hospital director who exaggerated the health risks involved, emphasizing that Paulina could suffer a fatal hemorrhage or be left sterile - even though abortion is an extremely safe procedure. In April, the young teen delivered by Caesarian section the baby that she will raise with the help of her parents and with some economic assistance from several non-governmental organizations.
"I am happy because everything went well, but I have a lot of anger," said Paulina's mother to the Associated Press shortly after the birth. Since then, lawyers from two Mexican women's rights organizations, Epikeia and GIRE (Information Group on Reproductive Choice), have filed criminal and civil charges on Paulina's behalf. They have also taken the case to the Baja California state human rights prosecutor, who has turned it over to the National Human Rights Commission for review of probable human rights offenses, as when the officials' permitted anti-choice extremists into Paulina's hospital room and when they allowed their personal views to dictate her treatment rather than respecting Mexican law. Paulina's attorneys are requesting state funds to help support Paulina and her child until he reaches 18 years of age. In addition, Paulina has become something of a cause celebre in Mexico, attracting the support of numerous women's and human rights groups, and several dozen Mexican intellectuals including the novelist Carlos Fuentes.
Isabel Vericat, one of Paulina's attorneys, says the most extraordinary thing about this case are the courageous actions Paulina and her mother took. "First of all, they denounced the rape, which is very uncommon for a rape victim to do in Mexico," says Vericat. "Then they demanded the right to a legal abortion in a public hospital, which is also practically unheard of. Very few women dare to publicly challenge the machismo and Catholic-dominated establishment the way Paulina and her mom have done."
Mexican abortion laws, which are regulated at the state level, are highly restrictive. It is estimated that as many as half a million Mexican women undergo illegal, clandestine abortions each year. While first-trimester procedures are permitted for rape victims or women whose lives are endangered by the pregnancy, Baja California state Rep. Martin Dominquez Rocha recently made the alarming proposal that the state's penal code be changed to eliminate the rape exception. Rocha is aligned with the socially conservative political party known as PAN (the National Action Party), which is closely affiliated with the Catholic Church and is backing a strong contender in the presidential elections to take place on July 2. Pro-choice advocates are particularly concerned about a PAN platform to reform the national constitution to recognize life from the moment of conception.
Vericat spent last fall as a visiting attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights to hone her expertise in the area of reproductive and sexual rights within an international framework. She says that if Paulina does not receive satisfactory relief from the state, and if all other national legal remedies are exhausted, her case will be submitted to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. This is the same body that held a hearing last fall involving the Peruvian government and an indigenous woman who was raped by a doctor employed in a public hospital. Center for Reproductive Rights attorneys helped negotiate a settlement favorable to the Peruvian woman and would assist in Paulina's case as well. GIRE is also arranging a workshop in Mexico in July at which Center for Reproductive Rights attorneys will give a presentation on the various international monitoring mechanisms and strategies for defending women's reproductive rights.
Report from the Front Line (that is, the waiting line)
Four Center for Reproductive Rights staffers waited outside all night to snag seats for the oral arguments in the Supreme Court "partial-birth abortion" case, Stenberg v. Carhart.
Julie Kay, Staff Attorney
The rain came pouring down at seven a.m., just as a blaring noise began emanating from a bullhorn aimed at the crowd that had been standing, sitting and sometimes sleeping on the United States Supreme Court steps for almost 12 hours. The man's voice over the bullhorn wildly berated the pro-choice movement while a Winnebago covered with inflammatory abortion pictures slowly circled the block. Although pro-choice supporters were outnumbered by anti-choice advocates by almost four to one, we were not daunted, knowing that our side would be heard equally inside the Supreme Court.
Away from the clamor, the actual courtroom at the Supreme Court is surprisingly small and quiet, an impressive dark mahogany and white marble retreat. At 10 a.m. precisely, an "all rise" sounded and the red curtains to either side of the bench parted as the Justices entered.
The Court gave each attorney 30 minutes to present his side of the argument. The Justices' questions came rapidly, often overlapping one another. Gradually, the rhythm of a polite banter took hold. Through it all, the Justices appeared to be directing largely rhetorical questions at each other from some predetermined position rather than searching to develop a position on the legal issues at stake here. And then it ended. In less time than it takes to proofread a brief, the arguments were over. There was no formal "thank you," no definitive ending, no applause or bows.
DeAna Hare, Development Associate
The most interesting part of the wait to get in was observing the gender dynamics of the anti-choice contingent. The majority of those waiting in line were women, both young and old. The majority of the spokespeople were men.
Early in the morning, two men came around and brought the women food and juice. The men were extremely paternalistic and took pains to act like they were caring for and protecting these women. But the women had been the ones standing in line all night! These men were willing to be the heroes, to swoop in rested and scrubbed to preach in front of the Court, but were unwilling to actually put their bodies on the front lines.
The men who lead the anti-choice movement talk, moralize, yell and condemn, but their bodies aren't the bodies at stake. The bodies of the women they claim to protect are the ones at stake, and I don't understand why these women don't see that their male leaders are not concerned with protecting fetuses or women, but with having control. If the anti-choice movement were really concerned with protecting fetuses, it would work for comprehensive prenatal care. If these men were really concerned about the women they work with, they wouldn't demonize women by implying that they abuse measures designed to protect their health.
Karen Raschke, Staff Attorney and Director, State Program
It was our 15th wedding anniversary. And it was my husband Don's idea. He suggested we spend Monday night at a hotel near the Supreme Court, so we could get up before dawn, stand in line, and then watch the argument together. What better way to cap off our romantic weekend celebration? There was none.
I'll never forget the first piece of mail I got after I moved in with Don: a letter telling me of an abnormal pap smear. Several days later, the gynecological oncologist diagnosed me with cervical cancer.
Don and I had to decide right away whether we wanted to have children in the future, because our decision would influence my treatment options. My life was never in any danger, but my future fertility was. Our first very personal decision was to decline a hysterectomy. We decided to try everything else first. However, five years later I had a hysterectomy.
No one told my husband and me that the government preferred childbirth over sterility and that I should continue a course of medical treatment that would best protect that government bias. No politicians dictated the content of the informed consent documents I signed. No legislative body directed my physician as to what procedures to use under risk of criminal prosecution.
Yet over the last 15 years, the Supreme Court has allowed Congress and the states to express a preference for childbirth. I always wonder what would happen if our government determined that America has too many people, that we need to have fewer pregnancies. Will my husband and I be among the lucky ones who chose hysterectomy on our own?
Zoe Oxaal, Development Associate
Attending the Supreme Court hearing was like a rite of passage for this "new American." Before I moved here a year ago, I read an official U.S. handbook on the constitution and government several times. Being part of the Center for Reproductive Rights has extended my civic education into the far corners of American life - the legal and healthcare systems, the politics, the abortion controversy and the stories of women from nearly every state.
But waiting in line overnight outside the Court brought me as close as I've come to religious fundamentalism - U.S. style. "Partial-birth abortion" ban proponents may have tried to portray this issue as narrow and moderate, but during their candlelit vigil on the court steps their extreme agenda was clear. Speakers blamed abortion for all of society's ills. Abortion, they said, was at the root of a tragic shooting that day by a teen at the D.C. zoo. Their real purpose is to turn Americans against all abortion, and "partial-birth abortion," they admitted, was just the start. The separation of church and state was anathema to them. They prayed for God to intervene in the hearts of the justices, but they meant only their God - an anti-choice God.
On the Docket
Florida Court Rejects Argument for Medicaid Funding of Abortions
Current Status: The latest step in a seven-year legal battle ended on April 20, 2000, when the three-judge panel in Tallahassee, Florida's First District Court of Appeal rejected arguments that Florida should pay for abortions of poor women if their health is endangered during pregnancy.
Background: Although the filing of the case dated back to March 1993, the challenge to Florida's prohibition on Medicaid funding of medically necessary abortions wasn't heard till June 1998, due to legal procedural issues. Lawyers for five Medicaid-eligible women, eight abortion clinics, two doctors and a non-profit organization providing financial assistance to women who cannot afford abortions, argued that the ban on Medicaid coverage for this procedure - except in the rare instance that the pregnancy is life-threatening or the result of rape or incest - violates the state's constitutional guarantees to privacy, equal protection and equality. In October, 1998, the Second Judicial Court for Leon County ruled against the plaintiffs, prompting an appeal.
The appeals court decision, siding with the state's position, followed a February 16, 2000 hearing to overturn the Judicial Court's ruling. While 13 other states have been required to fund medically necessary abortions for low-income women in the last five years, the appeals panel ruled that the "policy decision to fund prenatal care and childbirth expenses, but not abortion, does not coerce indigent women to carry a pregnancy to term, nor does it penalize them if they choose to have an abortion." Additionally, the panel stated that "although women may have the right to an abortion under the state Constitution, there is no entitlement to sufficient state funds to enable one to exercise that right." Plaintiffs' lawyers have filed an appeal in Florida's Supreme Court and are waiting for a response.
Plaintiffs in Renee B. v. State of Florida, No. 99-1238 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. April 20, 2000), are represented by Center for Reproductive Rights Staff Attorney Bonnie Scott Jones and Larry Helm Spalding of the ACLU Foundation of Florida.
Florida Parental Notice Law Permanently Enjoined
Current Status: On May 12, 2000, the Florida legislature's second attempt to require parental involvement for minors seeking abortions was struck down by a state court. The law was found to be unconstitutional by Judge Terry P. Lewis, who explained that, "[The law] sends the message to the hypothetical 13-year-old - if you make the choice we want you to [i.e., not to have an abortion], we will leave you alone. If you don't, we are going to make it more difficult for you to exercise your choice. This is exactly the kind of government interference into personal, intimate decisions that the privacy clause protects against." The ruling is on appeal to the state court of appeals.
Background: Florida's parental notice law has been blocked since July 26, 1999, when Judge Lewis issued a temporary injunction. The law sought to require physicians to notify at least one parent or legal guardian of any young woman seeking an abortion at least 48 hours before the procedure is performed. Young women could seek a court order authorizing the procedure in lieu of having her parents notified. Penalties for violating the law included loss of the doctor's license to practice medicine.
The first Florida parental involvement law (which required parental consent) was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1989 on the grounds that the state constitution extends the same right to privacy to young women as it does to adult women. This decision joins several other state court decisions recognizing that parental involvement laws fail to serve any valid state interest. Currently, courts in seven states have blocked parental involvement laws.
Plaintiffs in North Florida Women's Health & Counseling Services, Inc. v. State of Florida, No. 99-3202 (Leon County Ct. May 12, 2000), include 12 abortion providers and clinics, as well as women's rights groups from across Florida. They are represented by Bebe Anderson and Julie Rikelman of the Center for Reproductive Rights, local cooperating attorney Charlene Carres, and Dara Klassel of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In the May RFN, in the story on page 4 regarding mandatory wait laws, the counselor quoted is affiliated with the "Clinic for Women" in Indianapolis, Indiana, not "A Women's Choice" health clinic.