Florida State Pays Landmark Title IX Settlement Over Alleged Jameis Winston Rape
Though Jameis Winston may never answer to allegations that he raped a fellow student as a freshman Florida State University quarterback in 2012, the school has paid Winston’s alleged victim $950,000 in what may be the largest sexual assault–related Title IX settlement to date.
Erica Kinsman filed the civil suit in January 2015, alleging that FSU papered over her accusations to keep Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2013 and now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the school’s storied team. The alleged rape took place off campus, so Kinsman brought her initial report to the Tallahassee Police Department, which took nearly a year to bring the case to prosecutors. Still, the university was obligated under Title IX, which protects students against gender discrimination, to look into the matter and punish Winston as needed to keep the campus safe. After minimal investigation, neither institution charged Winston with any crime or violation.
In her claim, Kinsman accused FSU of obstructing a fair investigation into the night she says she was raped (Winston claims the encounter was consensual). The case has seen a few bizarre and demoralizing twists: FSU ended up charging two of Winston’s friends, who told the police they’d watched and filmed Winston and Kinsman having consensual sex, with invasion of privacy and creating a hostile sexual environment for another student. The police made first contact with Winston as a suspect by calling him on the phone, which the local prosecutor called “insane.”
The Tampa Bay Times reports that Kinsman will get $250,000 of the payout, and her lawyers will get the remaining $700,000.* FSU president John Thrasher said in a statement that the university settled to avoid the millions of dollars it would have taken to defend itself in court, though he is “convinced [FSU] would have prevailed.”
But Kinsman would have likely had a good case against the school, which, incidentally or not, appears to work in tandem with the city police for the benefit of its football program. A lawyer for Kinsman said a Tallahassee Police Department detective told her that “Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against [Winston] because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable.” FSU didn’t begin its investigation until nearly two years after Kinsman’s alleged assault and police report, despite the fact that a senior athletics director and the football coach learned of Kinsman’s claims just one month after the fact. A month after that, in February 2013, the police told Winston’s lawyer of the accusations against him, without notifying Kinsman so she could prepare for any backlash. And backlash did come: Kinsman says she left FSU in November 2013 because of campus harassment after the case went public—a textbook symptom of inadequate Title IX protection at the school.
FSU is still under Title IX investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, with whom Kinsman filed a complaint in 2014. Kinsman also filed a civil suit against Winston in April; Winston sued her back for defamation. Those cases are still pending. For now, this settlement should be a hint to other universities that fully equipping Title IX coordinators to investigate their students may be cheaper than paying to protect some of its students over others.
Update, Jan. 26, 2016, 12:54 p.m.: Kinsman’s attorneys have disputed FSU’s breakdown of the payout as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
Welcome to Davos, Where Even a Push for Gender Equity Mostly Involves Lots of Men
This year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is shaping up to be a characteristic dudefest. With its attendee population of world leaders and corporate bigshots, less than 18 percent of whom are women, this year’s gathering has paused at several points to reflect on gender equity. And yet, since this is Davos, these moments have had an unsurprising focal point: men.
The male CEOs of 10 major global companies released some specifics on their male-dominated workforces on Friday in conjunction with HeForShe, the United Nations' initiative to involve more men in global efforts for gender equality. The corporations, which included Twitter, Unilever, Barclays, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, averaged about 40 percent women in new-hire classes and 27 percent women in senior leadership positions. Some are doing much worse: McKinsey, for one, employs only 11 percent women in its top roles. The group of men posed for photos and promised to do better in the future. Yay!
On Wednesday, consulting firm Mercer held a panel on gender parity in business in advance of its annual report on the subject. The panelists were all men—in fact, the panel’s title was “The Role of Men,” and the intended audience was men. Mercer’s gender-equity initiative is called “When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive”; its website encourages corporate leaders to “capture a portion of this economic opportunity”—that is, women. A video about the program features a male narrator opening with an statement that sounds like he’s observing an exotic species in the wild: “Women,” he murmurs. “They provide one of the biggest opportunities for growth.”
On one hand, it’s true that companies with more women in leadership positions perform better in the marketplace, and since men still hold a disproportionate amount of hiring and decision-making power, it’s smart to appeal to their egos and concerns for the bottom line. Still, it’s disquieting to hear gender equality pegged as a moneymaking strategy, and women’s lives and economic disadvantages reduced to talking points on a man’s PowerPoint. That the UN must place men at the center of its campaign for women’s advancement is a sad reflection on the enduring power of male insecurity when it comes to lawmaking and workplace politics. It risks implying that women can’t do anything by themselves, even earn their own fair treatment.
Recent studies have confirmed that white men feel threatened by the slightest suggestion of a company’s commitment to diversity; at the “Role of Men” panel, a Mercer senior partner pointed out that, since 2014, men’s involvement in diversity and inclusion efforts has fallen from 49 percent to 38 percent. The panel’s hashtag seemed built to boost those fragile egos in danger of crumbling under gender equality: #MenMatter. Yes, allies are a necessary asset in any viable strategy for real change. But when they hog the spotlight, it’s hard to take them seriously.
Where the GOP Presidential Candidates Stand on Sex Work
Long before he was a viable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Marco Rubio composed a list of 100 things. Those things were “innovative ideas for Florida’s future,” and they are now available for purchase on Amazon. Rubio put forth those 100 things in 2006, as the speaker of the Florida House; one of them, number 43, was a revolutionary proposal for policing sex work.
The Daily Beast reports today that Rubio’s idea, which never made it through the Florida state Senate, was to offer sex workers and their clients immunity as “whistleblowers” if they turned themselves in and ratted on others. As an incentive, Rubio would have promised them half the proceeds from the cash or property seized from anyone convicted by the “whistleblower’s” testimony.
This proposal’s pitfalls are clear: Johns would have been able to pay for sex, then snitch on the people they’d hired and reap the benefits of their arrests; most sex workers aren’t rolling in cash, and a policy that rested on asset forfeiture would exacerbate the systems of poverty that force some into sex work in the first place.
Sex work hasn’t arisen as one of the principal issues of the Republican presidential race, but most of the candidates have something on their record that hints at their views on how the state should treat the industry. Perhaps the closest any current GOP candidate has come to benefiting from sex work is Donald Trump, whose German-immigrant grandfather, Friedrich, owned a brothel in the late 19th century. Trump historian Gwenda Blair writes in Politico:
[Friedrich] Trump headed for a prime location, the city’s red-light district, known as the Lava Beds. There he leased a tiny storefront restaurant named the Poodle Dog, which had a kitchen and a bar and advertised “private rooms for ladies”–code for prostitutes. It would allow the resourceful Trump, who renamed it the Dairy Restaurant, to offer the restless, frustrated public some right-now satisfaction in the form of food, booze and easily available sex.
Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz may not have inherited a fortune begat in part by the sex trade, but they don’t seem to harbor much moral opposition to it. Both made robocalls last year on behalf of Louisiana senator and then–gubernatorial candidate David Vitter, who was one of the biggest figures implicated in the D.C. Madam scandal.
How lawmakers prosecute sex slavery and trafficking often says as much about their priorities as their attitudes toward sex work at large. As Ohio governor, John Kasich signed into law a 2014 bill that made it a felony to pay for sex with a person who is under 16 years of age or developmentally disabled. It also changed the way the state treated underage survivors of human trafficking, who used to be labeled prostitutes and prosecuted for solicitation. When Chris Christie was a U.S. attorney in the aughts, he cut a deal with a New Jersey human trafficker whose crimes he called “among the most vile” he’d seen in his tenure. Christie’s office let her off with just six months house arrest and three years of probation, in part because she helped the future governor shore up his anti-corruption chops by offering testimony that led to a small-town mayor’s conviction.
Rand Paul has long fought the perception that he and his father support sex-work legalization. In 2010, Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway campaigned against Paul with an ad that accused Paul of wanting to legalize meth, burglary, and prostitution. On Fox News, Paul clarified that he does think drugs and sex work should be illegal, and he was “not proposing any changes” to the laws that criminalize them. Paul also sought to correct the popular belief that Ron Paul supported legalizing sex work, claiming that he never heard his father use the word “prostitution.” Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, hasn’t made any statements that suggest he’d like to legalize sex work, but he has promised to tax “pimps [and] prostitutes.” That idea points to a regulated system that recognizes sex work above board—making Huckabee, improbably enough, perhaps the most progressive candidate of the bunch on this issue.
Carly Fiorina Crashes Children’s Field Trip for Anti-Abortion Photo Op
Tomorrow’s 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade comes during what has been a banner month for anti-abortion politics. White lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures are using the language of Black Lives Matter to push their anti-choice platforms. Florida is considering a bill that would impose stringent surgical center requirements on abortion clinics—the same type of conditions that Texas clinics are currently challenging in the Supreme Court. Wisconsin is one Scott Walker signature away from defunding Planned Parenthood. Tomorrow’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., is pressing forward despite dire winter weather warnings.
But among the many righteous pro-life beacons beaming their messages across the cosmos, Carly Fiorina manages to outshine them all. The Guardian reports that the Republican presidential hopeful staged a photo op in front of an Iowa Right to Life fetus poster, surrounding herself with children whose parents were not asked for their consent.
The anti-choice forum took place at the Greater Des Moines botanical garden, where the children were enjoying a class trip. “The kids went there to see the plants. [Fiorina] ambushed my son’s field trip,” Chris Beck, a four-year-old attendee’s father, told the Guardian.
Towering over the crowd of trusting children, Fiorina looks like a shepherd schooling her flock on when life begins and when fetuses begin to experience pain. The young ones appear largely disinterested, more taken with the microphones on the floor than with the candidate, save for one in Spiderman snowboots who’s craning his little neck around to read a six-point plan on how to “take our country back.”
At Fiorina’s feet, Beck’s child looks particularly concerned, and for good reason. “He can’t fully comprehend that stuff,” Beck told the Guardian of the the concept of abortion. “He likes dinosaurs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers.”
Kids can be effective props for anti-choice performances. Protesters outside a future Planned Parenthood location in Washington, D.C., have been telling children at a nearby elementary school that there’s ababy-murdering factory being built next door to their classrooms. A few years back, anti-abortion protesters sent children with teddy bears to Ohio senate offices in support of a restrictive “fetal heartbeat” law (they also wrangled “testimony” from a 9-week-old fetus). Maybe Beck’s child will grow to be our country’s next great warrior for the babies, but in the meantime, pro-life politicians can probably score points just fine without having to crash little kids’ garden parties.
Sarah Palin Says Obama’s Lack of Support for Troops Caused Son's PTSD, Domestic Abuse
Master buzzword-manipulator Sarah Palin found occasion on Wednesday to peg her son’s alleged domestic abuse on Barack Obama’s insufficient support for American troops.
At a Tulsa, Oklahoma rally for Donald Trump, the erstwhile vice-presidential candidate addressed Track Palin’s recent arrest in poetic verse reminiscent of her rambling, kind of rhymey endorsement speech for Trump: “I guess it’s kind of the elephant in the room—because my own family, going through what we’re going through today with my son, a combat vet having served in a Stryker brigade fighting for you all, America, in the war zone.”
Track, who served in Iraq, has been charged with three misdemeanors: assault, interfering with the reporting of domestic violence, and possessing a gun while intoxicated. According to an affidavit, he punched his girlfriend in the face and, after she fell to the ground, kicked her. Sarah Palin has an answer for that:
My son, like so many others, they come back a bit different. They come back hardened. They come back wondering if there is that respect for what it is that their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military so sacrificially have given to this country, and that starts from the top. It’s a shame that our military personnel even have to wonder, if they have to question if they’re respected anymore. … The question, though, that comes from our own president where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we go through? Do you know what we’re trying to do to secure America and to secure the freedoms that have been bequeathed us?’
Police officers found Track’s girlfriend “hiding under the bed”; she reported that, during his alleged attack, Track placed a cocked AR-15 rifle to his head and threatened to kill himself. On Wednesday, Sarah Palin suggested that Trump would never give troops reason to doubt his support, and thus, he would prevent domestic abuse:
So when my own son is going through what he goes through coming back, I can certainly relate with other families who kind of feel these ramifications of some PTSD and some of the woundedness that our soldiers do return with, and it makes me realize more than ever, it is now or never for the sake of America’s finest that we’ll have that commander in chief who will respect them and honor them.
Domestic abuse is an epidemic among the ranks of combat veterans, who account for about 21 percent of all U.S. domestic violence. One study found that 80 percent of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder had committed at least one act of intimate-partner violence in the past year; for nearly half, that act was a “severe” one, such as a strangling, stabbing, or shooting.
That’s a reason to fund more and better mental-health and counseling programs for veterans—funding that Congressional Republicans have occasionally blocked. But it’s not a convenient political insult to lob at the president or an excuse for a family member’s violent behavior.
Bernie Sanders Says Planned Parenthood Is “Establishment.” Is It?
Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” has added the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood to its list of potential targets. On Tuesday night’s episode of the Rachel Maddow Show, the candidate told Maddow that he didn’t lose any sleep over losing the nonprofits’ endorsements to Hillary Clinton because they, like her, are “part of the establishment.”
Planned Parenthood gave Clinton its first-ever presidential primary endorsement early this month; on Tuesday, the HRC followed suit. A Sanders spokesperson first called the HRC “establishment” on Tuesday in an interview with the Washington Blade: “It’s understandable and consistent with the establishment organizations voting for the establishment candidate, but it’s an endorsement that cannot possibly be based on the facts and the record.”
Are the HRC and Planned Parenthood, in fact, establishment organizations? The two have such different histories, communities of supporters, and places in contemporary American culture that it makes little sense to lump them together. Though a similar percentage of Americans support each organization’s best-known issue (marriage equality and abortion rights, respectively), the former is decidedly establishment, while the latter is not.
The HRC has long been considered the whitest, wealthiest, most mainstream gay-rights organization; its most salient criticisms have come from the very LGBTQ people it purports to represent. The nonprofit has come under fire for endorsing Republicans over pro-gay Democrats to make inroads in the GOP base and heaping praise on massive companies with dubious ethics, such as Goldman Sachs. Many believed the HRC sold out transgender people when it stood behind a 2007 version of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that was stripped of protections for gender identity. That meeker bill failed anyway, as did the 2014 HRC-supported version that would have allowed certain discriminating organizations to claim religious exemption. At a major 2013 rally for equal marriage that was organized in part by the HRC, a transgender activist was told to take a trans pride flag off the podium platform and one of the speakers was asked to remove a reference to his undocumented status from his speech. (An HRC representative later apologized.)
Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, gets most of its hate from people who are opposed to its very existence, not from the people it advocates for. Organizations have made its destruction their primary purpose. Planned Parenthood workers and clients provide and access its services under constant threat of worsening harassment and violence, for which mainstream Republicans have all but held Planned Parenthood itself responsible.
In addition to affordable reproductive health care, Planned Parenthood provides essential services to transgender patients, as noted by Black Girl Dangerous (one of the most unapologetically radical blogs on race, gender, and sexuality out there). By prioritizing care for the most marginalized people—poor and rural women, teenagers, women of color—Planned Parenthood’s mission is explicitly anti-establishment. In many U.S. counties, Planned Parenthood is the best or only community health center available; by providing health care to patients in poverty without regard for their insurance status, immigration status, or ability to pay, Planned Parenthood stands in defiance of the economic injustices Sanders has built his campaign to solve.
Meanwhile, no Congressional committee is clamoring to grill the president of the HRC, as they have Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards. No votes have been taken to revoke the HRC’s nonprofit status, as they have of Planned Parenthood. The HRC has often been accused of prioritizing policies that, like equal marriage, yield the most significant benefits to the wealthiest, most privileged gays. The people Planned Parenthood serves are far less “establishment”: 79 percent of the organization’s patients live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.
Considering that Sanders didn’t even know the HRC’s proper name (he called it the “Human Rights Fund” on Maddow) it’s hard to imagine that he knows the ins and outs of the radical queer and anti-assimilationist arguments against it or the organization’s alleged favoring of white, cisgender men within its ranks. More likely, the statement was a knee-jerk defense meant to shore up the outsider complex of his supporters, who hold “the establishment” in equal contempt.
“We’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said to Maddow on Tuesday night. That Sanders would lump in two largely revered social-good organizations with the Wall Street system he’s promised to destroy is worrisome. It shows how little he knows or cares about the history and culture of these two organizations. In progressive circles intimately familiar with the differences between the HRC and Planned Parenthood, Sanders’ lack of distinction won’t win him any anti-establishment fans.
Why Do So Many Celebrities Moonlight as Superheroes?
On Monday evening, a 32-year-old man was driving at a “high rate of speed” in Moorpark, California, when he crashed his Toyota Tacoma into a drainage ditch and it caught on fire. Hey, it happens. What doesn’t happen as often: Actor/singer/comedian/alleged Katie Holmes boyfriend Jamie Foxx leaped into the wreck to rescue the driver from the flaming pickup.
“As I'm getting him out, I said, ‘You’ve got to help me get you out because I don’t want to have to leave you,’ ” Foxx told a local news station. “I said, ‘You've angels around you.’ ” The actor later Instagrammed a photo of himself embracing the father of the driver. “No heroes,” he wrote, “just happy fathers.” That’ll do, Jamie Foxx. That’ll do.
The odder thing about this incident is that it’s not remotely the first time that a celebrity has dabbled in off-screen heroism. I do not personally know anyone who has saved another human life in such dramatic fashion, but headlines suggest that it happens to famous people all the time. In November, Blake Shelton rescued four men whose truck had slid into a mud hole near the Oklahoma River. Heidi Klum saved her son and two nannies from a dangerous ocean riptide; photographers captured every gasp and splash (and bikini slip). A 74-year-old London jogger said that Dustin Hoffman saved his life when he collapsed with a heart attack a few years ago, and John Malkovich once used his scarf to apply pressure to an elderly man’s bleeding neck wound. (Think of all the good Lenny Kravitz could do!)
Once in a while, celebrities even help one another out. Richard Branson credited Kate Winslet from rescuing his 90-year-old mother from a serious house fire in the British Virgin Islands in 2011. Best of all, director Werner Herzog rescued Joaquin Phoenix when his brakes failed on Sunset Boulevard in 2006. As Phoenix lay in the wreckage, Herzog tapped on the window, told him to relax, helped him out, and then disappeared. “There's something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog's voice,” Phoenix said at the time. “I felt completely fine and safe.” (Then there are the more long-term rescues: Iggy Pop said last week that David Bowie saved him from “annihilation” by buoying him through a rough period in the 1970s.)
Upon closer inspection, many of the more dramatic stories here merit an asterisk. Foxx was aided by an off-duty EMT in his rescue this week. Hoffman didn’t call the ambulance for the jogger, as was originally reported; instead, he merely stayed on the scene and told the paramedics, “Great job, guys.” A few years after supposedly being saved by Winslet, Branson’s mother told the Guardian that Winslet and her children were behind her on the stairs as they were all fleeing the house fire, and the actress “just sort of picked me up and took me down four steps and that was it.” It was her grandsons who woke up everyone in the house and deserve the real credit for life-saving. Winslet, she suggested, may have just been in a hurry to get down the stairs.
Still, this is an awful lot of heroism, or least heroish-ism. What’s going on here? I suspect it’s at least one part superhuman self-confidence: Why wouldn’t Jamie Foxx believe he could do anything? The other likely factor is how the presence of a celebrity turns an already surreal situation into the stuff of legend. If Dustin Hoffman ever sits by my side for 15 minutes after I collapse on the sidewalk, I don’t care if he’s actually the one who calls the ambulance—I’m telling everyone he saved me. If dynamite stories are the stuff of life, it’ll be true.
The Two Factors that Most Determine Women’s Happiness at Work
Breaking news: Women report higher job satisfaction at workplaces that are friendly toward women. That’s what Fairygodboss, the website that aggregates people of the female persuasion’s anonymous reviews of their employers, found when it analyzed its data. The factors that seem to correlate most sharply with women’s sense of professional well-being can be loosely lumped into two categories: Women appreciate pro-family policies, and women want to see other women in positions of leadership.
Fairygodboss, which launched in March 2015, has been called the “Glassdoor for women” and the “Yelp for maternity leave policies.” Its data set skews “young and affluent”: nearly 65 percent of respondents to the site’s polls are under 35, and 73 percent report earning more than $50,000 a year; the quotes highlighted in the newest report are from employees at companies such as American Express, Prudential, and Johnson & Johnson. Still, with more than 5,000 anonymous job reviews to sort through, Fairygodboss has insight into a fairly broad swathe of female experiences—and its new report shows some striking commonalities.
For one thing, women who believe their workplaces treat both genders equally are far more satisfied at work than women who report the opposite. Fairygodboss asks respondents to rank their job satisfaction on a scale of one to five, with five being the best. Eighty-two percent of the “ones” said they worked in unequal companies, while 86 percent of the “fives” gave their employers credit for fostering gender equality. And while questions remain about how much women in leadership positions actually do to advance feminist policies, Fairygodboss’s data suggests that seeing gender diversity in the upper echelons of management at least gives women a higher opinion of their employers.
The other strong predictors of job satisfaction were family-friendliness and a culture of work-life balance. The report quotes a woman at the HR service ADP who wrote, “I have been with ADP for 13 year and I have two children… ADP has allowed me to provide for my family financially, and I have not ever missed anything for my children…which makes me run through brick walls for ADP.” This sentiment turns out to be fairly representative: Eighty-three percent of contented “fives” described their employers as having “family-friendly values,” versus only 30 percent of dissatisfied “ones.”
The generosity of maternity leave policies is one of the best standalone barometers for where women will be happy to work. A striking graph shows that nearly half of the “ones” in Fairygodboss’s survey took only six weeks of leave. Over 60 percent of the “fives” took twelve weeks or more.
Of course, figuring out the factors that contribute to women’s satisfaction at work isn’t the same as devising policies to make workplaces more equitable and enable women’s success. Over at the New York Times, The Upshot has been doing some excellent reporting on this topic, aggregating experts’ best advice on how to close the gender pay gap, and digging into a worrisome new study that suggests women don’t get credit for teamwork done with men. But it’s still useful—for the feminist project, and for employers trying to hold onto female talent—to try to pin down what makes women feel that they’re thriving at work. Some of the factors underscored in the Fairygodboss study—such as policies that support the juggling act of life and work over the brute accumulation of face-time—might be the keys to making workplaces not just happier for women, but fairer, too.
Black Women Don’t Reap the Same Health Benefits from Delaying Motherhood as Whites
Postponing motherhood is reported to have positive effects on the health of mother and child and lead to higher future earnings and higher educational attainment. But what about those women whose health will likely decline with age and can’t count on higher wages or a college degree in the future?
These are the questions posed by behavioral scientist Arline Geronimus in an effort to explain why black women tend to have children younger than white ones. (The most common age range today for black mothers to give birth is 20-24; for white women it is 25-29.) In 1992, Geronimus put out a paper suggesting that because black women’s health tends to decline at an earlier age than white women’s—largely as a byproduct of the stresses of poverty and racial inequality—they do not reap the health benefits from delaying motherhood that white women do. She called this the “weathering hypothesis.” In 2003, Geronimus wrote a follow-up paper on the subject, in which she pointed out that young black women “do not enjoy the same access to advanced education or career security” than other Americans, and therefore can’t anticipate the financial benefits of delaying parenthood, either.
Using data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on all infant deaths in the U.S. in 2013, sociologist Philip N. Cohen recently found that the declining health part of Geronimus’s “weathering hypothesis” holds water. In a new paper, Cohen breaks down infant mortality rates by race and shows that while a white woman’s chance of losing a baby declines with age, before rising again in her late 30s, a black woman’s doesn’t. Infant mortality rates are twice as high among black women than among white women, and are often the result of the mother’s poor health. (And no, black women aren’t genetically predisposed to higher rates of infant mortality.) As Cohen explains on his blog:
Once you control for some basic health, birth, and socioeconomic conditions (plurality, parity, prenatal care, education, health insurance type, and smoking during pregnancy), the risk of infant mortality for Black mothers increases linearly with age: the longer they wait, the greater the risk. For White women the risk follows the familiar (and culturally lionized) U-shape, with the lowest risk in the early 30s.
Prospective parents are often told to wait until they are financially ready before having kids. The importance of being economically stable has made its way into arguments for increased access to contraception as well—help young women postpone parenthood and they’ll have a better shot at succeeding in school and the workforce. But all this presumes that every woman can count on a better, healthier, more financially stable future. Cohen’s findings suggests that, as things stand right now, they can’t.
How the Zika Epidemic Could Change Latin America’s Relationship with Abortion
“Don’t get pregnant at the moment.” That was a Brazilian medical worker’s advice to women late last year as the country struggled to contain the ongoing Zika virus epidemic, which has spread throughout South and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The dengue fever–like disease only causes symptoms in one out of every five cases, but it is thought to cause microcephaly—a rare birth defect marked by an abnormally small head and stunted brain development—in fetuses of infected mothers. Even health officials in Jamaica, which hasn’t yet seen its first case of Zika but expects the virus to arrive soon, have recommended that women there postpone pregnancy plans for six months to a year.
But pregnancy isn’t always a matter of planning. In 2002, only 51 percent of U.S. pregnancies were intended; the Department of Health and Human Services has set a goal to raise that rate to a mere 56 percent by 2020. That’s in a country where, for all the recent political efforts to stymie access to family planning services, contraception is widely accessible and affordable when compared to many of the nations where Zika is taking root.
So it’s likely that women will continue to get pregnant in the nations that are advising against it, even as the Zika virus spreads. The rate of children born with microcephaly has increased 20-fold in Brazil since the first Zika case was reported last year, and parents are protesting that the state has given them inadequate support, or none at all. Now, as many as 1.5 million Brazilians may have contracted the virus, which is still gaining momentum. What are pregnant women infected with Zika supposed to do?
Though as many as 1 million women obtain underground abortions in Brazil every year, the procedure is currently illegal except in cases of rape, threat to the mother’s life, or fetal brain deformity. Late last year, women protested a law proposed by political leader Eduardo Cunha, who seeks to impose further restrictions on reproductive health care. A sonogram could detect microcephaly in a Zika-infected fetus, and that may qualify as a brain defect severe enough to warrant a legal abortion in Brazil—but in a country that imprisons women for getting abortions and limits medical conversations about the practice, an abortion provider might be nearly impossible to find in time.
Some of the other countries currently battling a Zika epidemic make it even harder for women to terminate their pregnancies. El Salvador, for one, boasts some of the world’s most punishing anti-abortion laws, sentencing women and their doctors to up to 40 years in prison for attempting an abortion. There are no exceptions to the abortion ban; even women who have miscarriages, late-term stillbirths, or premature births are often reported to the police for abortion investigations. An estimated 11 percent of Salvadorean women who obtain an illegal abortion die from the procedure. Haiti, Honduras, and Suriname—all of which have reported Zika infections—also ban abortion without exception, as does the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, which will likely see Zika cases soon due to their proximity to Zika-afflicted nations. Most of the other Latin American countries where Zika has spread impose restrictions on abortion, too.
Science blogger Mike the Mad Biologist suggests that Zika may become for certain Central and South American nations what rubella was for the U.S. in the mid-20th century: a birth defect–causing disease that becomes an exception to social and political barriers to abortion. Even the staunchest anti-choice crusaders found it hard to stomach the thought of forcing a woman to carry a rubella-afflicted fetus, which could arrive with permanent, life-altering conditions, to term. Thus, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, rubella became a tacit exemption from legal abortion bans and doctors’ policies against the procedure. Though its affected population was narrow, it gave the public an undeniably sympathetic case study for abortion, bringing a stigmatized act into full view and providing a stepping stone for future discussions around reproductive rights.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that pregnant women in the U.S. postpone any travel to affected regions, and it advised doctors to ask all pregnant patients about their travel histories. It’s possible that the CDC came about as close as it could to suggesting infected women consider abortion: “In a pregnant woman with laboratory evidence of Zika virus in serum or amniotic fluid, serial ultrasounds should be considered to monitor fetal anatomy and growth every 3–4 weeks. Referral to a maternal-fetal medicine or infectious disease specialist with expertise in pregnancy management is recommended.”
When Latin American countries’ urgings against pregnancy prove futile, their health officials may find similarly coded ways to address the likely upsurge in birth defects. But without a parallel conversation on policy, unsafe and illegal abortions may prove as great a danger to Zika-infected women as the virus itself.