Archive | September, 2012

Speaking of abortion

24 Sep


Well, maybe we weren’t…But have you heard about the one about the right to an abortion in the UK?

I know, I know, abortions are permitted in the UK under the Abortion Act 1967 – I know. Although the Act might have been considered liberal at the time it was introduced, the law on abortion in the UK is starting to look a little shabby around the edges now. First point to note, the Abortion Act doesn’t apply to the whole of the UK. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Case law has recognised the exception to allow an abortion where necessary to protect the mother’s life or to prevent real and serious adverse effect to her physical and mental health. But otherwise it’s a criminal offence. Sentiments on this still run high, as noted by recent comments from the politician next in line for the post ofhealth minister that women who suffer a sexual assault must not be exempt from the strict laws banning abortion in Northern Ireland.

So, in England, Wales and Scotland then, under the Abortion Act before 24 weeks women do not have a “right” to an abortion. An abortion is permitted, but not a right, where continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family. Also, not one, but two registered medical practitioners have to sign off on. Extremely bureaucratically restrictive, as well as substantively restricting the right. As well, it’s different again in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

As this isn’t a right, acts outside this restrictive perimeter would be against the law and therefore illegal. And there’s a group of crimes on the statute book that you could be charged if you do try to end your pregnancy, such as sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act or the Infant Life (Preservation) 1929. These crimes are not a relic of statute long forgotten and never used. Granted, they aren’t used often, but when they are oh how they show what a cracked and warped regime it is. Last week, one woman was jailed for 8 years under section 58 of the OAPA. Eight years for taking drugs at 39 weeks pregnant to induce early labour. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the judgement, not least the remarks of the judge, which are available here, as well as the extensive prison sentence handed down. Shan’t repeat them here, you can read them yourself. But do read them if you have the chance. His remarks do highlight the problems with the UK law as it stands: that by having an incomplete and qualified right to abortion under UK law and not reforming the criminal law so it is archaic with no recognition of the social and mental issues so clearly at play, women will be the subject of these out-dated and inappropriate views where they do not have a place. I’m still flabbergasted myself.

Although pregnant women in the UK cannot choose to subject their own bodies to a specific treatment in this respect, they do have the right to refuse treatment, recognised strongly in St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1998] 3 All ER 673 (CA):

Although human, and protected by the law in a number of different ways … an unborn child is not a separate person from its mother. Its need for medical assistance does not prevail over her rights. She is entitled not to be forced to submit to an invasion of her body against her will, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends on it. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant.”

It’s also interesting to compare this to Sweden. There, women have a right to an abortion up to 18 weeks in the pregnancy, unless it would be a danger to the mother’s life. After 18 weeks, abortion is allowed only if permitted by Socialstyrelsen (the National Board of Health and Welfare). It can only be permitted if there are very strong reasons for an abortion and can’t if there is reason to believe the foetus could survive on its own. Socialstyrelsen guidance on this points to 22 weeks, but this is limit is not specified in the legislation. Before the end of the 18 weeks, if a doctor decides that an abortion would be a danger to the mother’s health, this decision must immediately be subjected to a decision by Socialstyrelsen. In practice, this mean the doctor doesn’t have the power to deny the woman’s right on their own; that decision is subject to a further decision by Socialstyrelsen which must be in agreement to deny the woman the right. At any time, if there is a serious danger to woman’s life and health, Socialstyrelsen can give permission regardless of how many weeks into the pregnancy. According to a government inquiry in 2005, a woman who has an illegal abortion cannot be criminally punished.

We could go on forever discussing the differences and best ways to legislate a woman’s right to an abortion. But really, is criminalising the mother the best way to deal with the fact that she resorted to such methods on her own physical person to end her pregnancy? Surely someone can see the gap here! But the very depressing thing is that with the state of UK politics at the moment, the law we have is probably the best we’ll see in a long time – the risk of trying to change it risks abandoning any right at all.

If you didn’t hear the one about abortion in the UK, it makes a mockery of women’s rights.

What Were We Debating About Anyway?

18 Sep

A good friend of mine, who is a brilliant lawyer and a wonderful person, was reading “The last Day of a Condemned Man” by Victor Hugo and afterward made a remark about death penalty and abortion. She said she had difficulties understanding how someone can be against the death penalty and in favor of abortion. She asked: is it logical, considering the principle of respecting one’s life? Wouldn’t this principle be valid in both debates?

I answered her yes, it is logical to be against the death penalty and to be in favor of the decriminalization of abortion at the same time. To me, in both cases, what is at stake is not the respect for one’s life, but the need to limit state’s power. Indeed, I am against giving the state the power to decide about the end of someone’s life due to a crime he committed; and I am also against giving the state the power to legislate about what happens inside a woman’s body, especially if it is to criminalize it.

I do not follow the debate about the decriminalization of abortion closely, probably because that is one of the few legal problems I think my boyfriend and I will not have to deal with personally, unless men can get pregnant in the near future. But I don’t want to talk about the decriminalization of abortion itself here.

What I want to talk about is the gigantic importance of not letting a debate become twisted to the point that it is unrecognizable. And the debate on the decriminalization of abortion is the best example of how a conservative group has changed the debate such that even informed people do not know what the debate is about and therefore form an opinion in favor of the conservative/religious side.

In fact, debating about “abortion” is completely different than debating about “the decriminalization of abortion”. More seriously, wtf is the meaning of “pro life” and “pro choice”? To me, the meaning of someone being “pro choice” instead of “pro life” can only be that this person believes in the right to suicide.

Another example of intentionally misunderstanding a debate happened recently in Brazil. The government was preparing an anti-bullying campaign for schools. Among the subject of the campaign was the respect for diversity, including sexual diversity. How could one be against a campaign that protects children and adolescents from being bullied? That would be a hard fight, right?

So, strategically, some religious and homophobic groups that wanted to keep future generations from not being homophobic – God forbid, indeed– started to call the campaign material “the gay kit”. In interviews, articles, and general debates, they used the term “gay kit” so many times that the general media adopted the expression. Soon enough, the country was discussing who was in favor or against “the gay kit”. And guess what? Not only was the anti-bullying campaign gone before it started – it was aborted, pun intended – but now no politician wants to be connected with it. In fact, this week, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God accuses the Catholic Church of supporting “the gay kit”. Instead of discussing an anti-bullying campaign, we are discussing which church is or is not homophobic enough.

See? This post was not about my friend, abortion, anti-bullying campaign or the gay kit. It was about stupidity, pure and simple. And, unfortunately, stupidity hurts!

Feminism and the German Media: Condescendence, Ignorance, and the Inevitable Purple Satin Top

17 Sep

“Her dark hair shines, her neckline is plunging and her sentences are ready for press… “. What could this be? Introductory line for some cheap erotic novel? How about  “She wears a purple satin top and black ballerinas and her answers are always measured and polite “? A fashion blog? Or some more sex lit, this time the demure little shy girl, waiting for it to happen (come on, she obviously does, she wears a purple top! Satin!).

No, actually. These sentences are both taken from an article published on ‘SPIEGEL Online’(www.spiegel.de), the online portal of ‘Der SPIEGEL’, the biggest weekly political magazine in Europe  and once the forefront of quality coverage and the proud spearhead of investigative journalism in West Germany.  That said, two of the criticisms that Der SPIEGEL had always have to battle was that it was run as a boys’ club, and that its coverage of gender issues had this ever so slight patronizing and ironic undertone. Really now?

The article in question is about the young US-American blogger, Julie Zeilinger,, editor of the blog The F Bomb, an online community for teenage girls that deals with feminism and women’s rights. The article combines my three personal journalistic capital sins when covering feminist issues: 1 often patronizing and sneering language; 2. a remarkable lack of knowledge on the subject matter; and 3. obsessive concentration on the physical appearance of the protagonist(s).

Though the first issue is certainly not limited to the newspaper I am bitching about here, Der SPIEGEL is arguably particularly ambitious in committing deadly sin no. 1. Their style is characterized by articles that are often written from the perspective of a condescending narrator, playing the accentuated naïve but well-meaning common man asking rhetorical leading questions with eyes wide open in bewilderment as to all the exotic and bizarre things out there. This way the protagonist is denied autonomous motives for their actions, and, in the context of feminist issues, portrays them either as your usual man-hating feminist or as naïve, hapless girls. One example of this was the Pussy Riot coverage, where SPIEGEL could combine another of their specialties, condescending reporting on non-Western European countries with condescending reporting on feminist issues, concluding that a dark and uncivilized Russia puts women in jail for something that ‘appears like a harmless joke’.

An example of this condescension from the Julie Zeilinger article:

“The student appears in TV talk shows, faces up to radio interviews and does readings in book stores. Besides that, there is the already mentioned meaningful blog, it is called “The F Bomb”. There, the world can learn on a daily basis why feminism is really not out of date. Is it not? When women like Angela Merkel lead states, and Christine Lagarde presides over the IMF? When more than half of the students at many universities in western countries are female? How does a 19-year old American get the idea to wanting to revitalize a movement that had already seemed passé in the 1990s? Back then, people that were of Zeilinger’s age and were, in all seriousness, concerned themselves with Simone de Beauvoir`s standard work ‘The Other Sex’ were already then considered outdated”.

Sexism is passé because of Angela Merkel? Never mind wondering whether the German chancellor or the Managing Director of the IMF really are perceived as role models to the US-American teenagers for whom Zeilinger’s blog is primarily intended. It’s a reoccurring theme: racism is not an issue anymore because there is Barack Obama and; hey, Berlin has an openly gay mayor–even Christian Democrats are said to have a couple of gays somewhere–so homophobia is so last century.

This SPIEGEL standard method is, of course, not limited to male correspondents. In fact, the author of the quoted article is a woman. A woman, that, I found out after minutes of relentless investigative googling, is 24 years old, which means that in the 1990s, when feminism was oh so passé, she was in kindergarten. But I am sure her experienced older male colleagues were happy enough to confirm that back in the day, everyone caught reading Simone de Beauvoir was publicly tarred and feathered and struck off the ‘females to invite to the trophy room and read Hemingway to’ list.

The quoted paragraph also nicely illustrates my second deadly sin, namely demonstrated lack of knowledge on the subject-matter. Sometimes I have the suspicion that these sort of articles are solely written for the comment trolls. (Yes, I admit it. I make the mistake time and time again even though I promise myself to abstain for the sake of my mental health and for that of the people around me. I read the readers’ comments to newspaper articles. Sometimes, when I have an especially off day, I even answer. I have not not regretted it a single time. It’s a waste of time. Everyone knows it. But it is procrastination, enough said).

I’m not going to go into more details of what is wrong with this particular article (partly because I don’t really know where to start). But after having read a couple of articles that go in the same vein, a pattern emerges: German journalist seem to collectively have missed third-wave feminism. It is true that compared to the US, the feminist movement in Germany, while having been pretty strong in the 70s and 80s lost some momentum after that and third-wave feminism in Germany has largely been inspired by said movement in the US . It is also true that compared to Scandinavian countries, compared to France, Germany is hopelessly behind when it comes to implementing feminist policies and, maybe even more severely, feminist theories and rhetoric are largely non-existent in public discourse, meaning that leading female German politicians regularly feel the need to publicly pronounce that they are NOT (God forbid), feminists. In mainstream public discourse, feminism is equated with purple dungarees, unshaved armpits and is more or less always associated with one name alone: Alice Schwarzer.

Ms. Schwarzer is undoubtedly the most prominent feminist in Germany and German women owe her much for her courageous fight for the right to abortion; for her constant taking on of sexist stereotypes in the German media; for her groundbreaking publications inspired by her long friendship and fruitful professional collaboration with Simone de Beauvoir (dating back to the 1970s when Schwarzer came to Paris to study under Michel Foucault); for her fearless and tireless reminders to the German public that not all is perfect in the motherland. Unfortunately, in recent years, Ms. Schwarzer predominantly generated publicity with a gigantic ego, with systematically discrediting anyone emerging as a possible successor, with ‘warning’ against the islamising of Germany and with abolishing the benefit of a doubt in a column she wrote for Germany’s biggest (populist/right/sexist) Tabloid ‘Bild’  documenting a rape trial involving Germany’s most prominent weather forecaster.

Furthermore, her rhetoric reveals a classic 70s second-wave Western radical feminist world view in which men are by trend oppressors, Muslim women are voiceless demure beings that have to be liberated with the help of Western feminism, and pornography is per se degrading and needs to be banned. All in all, her world view hasn’t change much since the 1970s. A couple of years ago, she famously called young German third-wavers wellness feminists (see also: http://maedchenmannschaft.net/fur-eine-lebendige-feministische-debatte/) for their sex-positive attitudes, for their less lenient views on tools of ‘islamisation’ (aka head scarves), for pointing out that men, too, can suffer in patriarchic structures .

Alice Schwarzer is THE feminist in Germany. The one and only. I am pretty sure that if you’d ask random Germans about a German feminist they know, this is the answer you would get in 9.9 out of 10 cases. Every TV show, article, radio broadcasting on feminism features her and she happily has an opinion on any given topic (which I don’t mean in a pejorative way, that is quite an achievement. I, too, owe a lot to her activism, I just think she should have retired about 20 years ago).

This predominance of Alice Schwarzer in German is very convenient for the writers of troll articles, because they can comfortably withdraw to her public image where she has been depicted as the slightly hysteric witch. They can point to Alice, who will happily agree, and tell their readers: “This, she, is feminism”. And naturally, many people, too lazy/busy/uninterested to look further, will agree, even young women who identify themselves with many of the demands of feminism will say If this is feminism entails, I am out. And who can blame them?

My third deadly sin is an obvious one: drawing the reader’s attention away from the protagonist’s ideas and opinions and towards her body and her appearance. This is once again done using this irritant naïve sleazy old man, who voices his surprise about these women that call themselves feminists and wear makeup, or the women who call themselves feminist and don’t wear makeup (win-win situation for the writer here), which gives him/her the opportunity to elaborate on cleavage, or the lack of it, and also discredits the protagonist as a serious partner of debate.

So here it is. The condescension, the ignorance, the purple top (satin!). All in one. I don’t really have an explanation for why this sort of reporting is so predominant in Germany, other than the obvious and sad one: that our public discourse on women’s rights is light years behind that of some other countries, while we are, at the same time, convinced that we are spearheading progress and that our society is more equal, fair and social than all the rest. In that, we are the Americans of Europe (sorry rest of the Americas, sorry US of A, it just sounds too catchy [necessary aside? Distracting from your conclusion]): we don’t have that much of an idea what is going on around us, all the while, we have a very clear conviction that this is as good as it gets and everywhere else is generally worse and overall slightly dodgy. Maybe these things are slowly changing. Maybe it’ll just take a few of more years. Until then, I look with envy to some of the knowledgeable, informative, and yet critical stuff published in some major papers in Britain, in the US or in Scandinavia.

Media on trial or trial by media

7 Sep

As an ex-pat, the differences between your home country’s culture and your adopted country’s culture can be blatant and subtle alike, but whenever they do arise, their revelation usually makes you have a little pause and think “huh”. The same is true for similarities you weren’t expecting. I had a little pause this week listening to a radio programme on the role of the media in the Thomas Quick case.

Full details on the case can be found in an excellent documentary (by Hannes Råstam) first aired on Swedish Television in 2008, but in brief, Quick (who has since changed his name to Sture Bergwall) confessed to around 30 unsolved murders during compulsory psychiatric therapy he was undergoing after being convicted of armed robbery in 1990. He was convicted for eight of these murders between 1994 and 2001. The convictions were based almost entirely on his confession evidence and there has been a lot of criticism of the trials: three convictions were overturned, retrials were ordered for two of the remaining convictions, and applications for retrial submitted for other three.

This was all brought to the public fore again by a recent book also by Hannes Råstam and has resulted in a storm of media coverage (including a recent entry) and opinions on the case, including the opinion of one Supreme Court Justice who, in his role as Chancellor of Justice, decided there was no need to review the case in 2006.

In the midst of all this, I was struck by Erik Hedtjärn’s question during a debate about why these issues weren’t covered in the media at the time of the trials. Why didn’t the media ask obvious and critical questions at the time? Why didn’t the media fulfill its role in highlighting the issues with the evidence in the reports then?

Now, I wasn’t in Sweden at the time so have don’t know if they did or didn’t, but the thing that struck me with this statement was the perceived role of the media in criminal trials. Hailing from Old Blighty where the role of the press in all its glory is currently under scrutiny by the Leveson Inquiry, I really did think “huh”. Back home, criticisms of the overly-involved role of the media in criminal trials and investigations has been raised in many high profile cases – and perhaps never more so than the phone hacking scandal.

In Sweden, the criticism was that the media had failed to sufficiently cover the problems in the trial and played their part in the process properly. Much like the criticisms of trial by media in the UK, the criticism ultimately points to the content of the reports in the press (criticisms in the UK have focused a lot on the individual’s right to privacy and affect of media reports on the right to a fair trail, compared with the public interest in knowing).

But the really important point for both the inquiry in the UK and the criticism in the Quick case in Sweden is that the press has a very important role in reporting on criminal trials and investigations. A very important role.

Affirmative Action in Brazilian Universities

4 Sep

Brazil’s president just sanctioned a law establishing that 50% of places in Public Universities and in Federal Technical Schools should be allocated to students coming from public high schools, which are generally less likely to pass the highly competitive entrance exams required by the public universities. Within this 50% quota, half of the eligible students shall be black, indigenous, or from families with very low income.

Apart from a few NGOs, the new law has created outrage among most Brazilians, to the point that is quite surprising that the law was actually approved by both federal legislative houses and sanctioned by the president. It seems like VERY few people agree with it.

I confess: I sometimes have mixed feelings about affirmative action measures. They look amazing on paper, but they are so incredibly hard to put into practice. And in Brazil, a country in which few people know exactly what they are, race-wise, categorizing everyone is quite difficult. Also, my personal desire for a meritocracy in Brazil is sometimes too strong to reasonably give space to other principles. Additionally, Brazilian public universities, even if they are actually not that good, are the few places in the country where some science is produced. And I fear science may pay the price when the university receives fewer qualified students.

Still, unless one chooses to close their eyes, Brazilian racial and educational divide is clear: in general, the darker the skin, the poorer, and the more years spent in public high schools (which are free, but generally bad), the less chance one has to get into a public university (also free, but of better quality). The best way to deal with the situation would be to improve the quality of the public high schools, but I admit it: this takes time, a generation at least.

So, even if just to prove that I have my eyes open to Brazilian inequality (yes, I’m not that cold yet), I salute the new law and hope it will be applied wisely and will meet its objective of a fairer society, with more equal opportunities to all. It is a brave law!

Disclosure: I studied in a private elementary school and in a private high school. They were far from the good, but way better than the public options in my hometown. I passed the entry exams to study law in a public university. At that time – the ancient 1994 – there were 1050 applicants for Law and only 40 available places. I don’t remember anyone in my law classes being from a public high school. There were around eight students with darker skin (though mixed race is 52% of my home state population, according to 2010 census). There wasn’t a black student in my class (blacks are 5,7% of the population there, according to 2010 census).

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