These are our fellow human beings… they’re not asking for anything other than the right to earn a living…. How can we, as people who make the laws… say to one small group of our fellow citizens, ‘You know there’s something about you that people do not like, so you are not eligible for work’?
On May 13th through 15th, I attended the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) Spring Convening. About 30 organizational representatives, religious professionals and lay leaders came together as members of this pro-faith, pro-family, pro-choice coalition.
Those attending the conference represented some of the 14 religious denominations and 40 organizations that make up RCRC, including the Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian Univesalist Association, the United Church of Christ, Catholics for Choice, the Union for Reform Judaism, and many others. Unitarian Universalists shared our thoughts and values over the course of three days as small and large groups worked to help each other understand and shape the coalition’s strategies and working relationships.
One message I took home from the convening was that we need to be more visible as people of faith who support reproductive rights and justice. This includes not only advocating for all people’s access to safe and affordable reproductive health care, contraception and abortion, but also for the right to comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education that equips everyone to make healthy sexual and reproductive choices throughout their lifetimes.
I hear from too many Congressional offices, even those that support comprehensive sex education and reproductive choice, that they receive an overwhelming number of calls from anti-choice religious people and groups and almost none from people of faith on the other side. It only takes a moment to look up the phone numbers for your own elected officials in the House and Senate and call to register your opinion on these issues or to thank them for supporting your values. Please do so, they need to know that you are out there. Check our website for tips and talking points if you need them.
After the conference, I had an appointment for an annual check-up at Planned Parenthood. When I told the midwife who was examining me that I had just come from conference of people who are pro choice because of our faiths, and not despite them, she was surprised to know that we exist. She said that she often imagines that the religious protesters, who show up outside of her clinic on days when they provide abortion services, are praying for the safety and well-being of the patients. What a great idea. Wouldn’t it be a change to see religious messages of love and compassion for all outside of a Women’s clinic rather than those of death and blame and hopelessness that seem to prevail in the public debate on these issues?
We encourage those of you who want to work for reproductive health, choice and justice to learn more about RCRC and how you can get involved.
Social theorists from feminist sociologists, like Audre Lorde, to institutional anthropologists, like Michel Foucault, agree that rape is never about sex. Rape is about power. Rape and sexual abuse dehumanizes and humiliates its victims. Its effects ripple through societies beyond those who are abused. This is why rape has been used as a very effective tool by invading armies. It has been documented that rape and sexual humiliation have been used in nearly every war since the Roman Empire. And it is widely recognized as a tool of genocide. Rape has been found in the holocaust as well as the Serbian, Rwandan and Sudanese genocides. And it has been a tool of torture in many international conflicts.
The effects of rape include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and often share similar results to what veterans of war and conflict experience. People who experience sexual violence during war time suffer the dual stress of sexual violence and war. It is for these reasons and more, the use of sexual violence is banned under international law as a crime against humanity.
It should come as no surprise, however, with this long history of rape in wartime, that reports of sexual violence and humiliation at the hands of U.S. soldiers are making their way into the public. Three years ago when pictures of sexual humiliation and sodomy came out of Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, the public was outraged—and rightly so. But the media, public opinion and the Department of Defense all categorized it as a fluke. Recently, though, we have come to realize that Abu Ghraib was not a fluke, but rather, a harbinger of events to come.
In July of 2006, a group of U.S. service members were investigated by The Pentagon for allegedly raping and killing an Iraqi civilian. And similar stories of soldiers raping women in Iraq are more common that we wish. A horrific story involving a KBR contractor being imprisoned and raped by her colleagues chilled the nation. Last February, a New York Times article reported these are just few of 124 reported sexual assaults investigated in Iraq since 2005. But what is more disturbing is the fact that more than 2,200 sexual assaults have been investigated by the Department of Defense in 2006 alone. It is unknown how many of these took place in Iraq.
A culture of rape is very real in the U.S. Military and it can no longer be ignored. Gruesome accounts of sexual violence between soldiers, military contractors and civilians are all too regular. And the Department of Defense cannot consider these as isolated incidents. As women service members have called for more accountability, the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reached out to organizations like the Miles Foundation and Men Can Stop Rape to address the very real culture of rape facing our military. Currently the Veteran Affairs has sixteen care centers for veterans who have experienced sexual assault—many of whom experienced their trauma as far back as Vietnam or World War II.
Currently, the organization Color of Change is calling for Congress to investigate the apparent rape and murder of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq. Please visit their campaign for Pfc. Johnson. And to learn more about the DoD is working to prevent sexual assault, please visit the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office website at http://www.sapr.mil/.
Last Saturday marked my second World AIDS Day with the UUA. Last year, Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, came to DC and we held a “For Whom the Bell Tolls, Resounding Vigil”, he also spoke at a UNAIDS event, and conducted a couple of lobby visits. This year, Rev. Sinkford met with the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC), rallied outside of OGAC, and spoke at a Rally in front of the White House.
Both this year and last, Rev. Sinkford has come to D.C. and taken every opportunity presented to him to practice truth telling. He speaks with conviction about our moral obligation to confront the spread of HIV/AIDS with honesty and with sound science. His unwavering support for using evidence-based, comprehensive information about sexuality to save lives is crucially important when confronting a political establishment too easily swayed by ideological insistence on the use of ineffective abstinence-until-marriage programs.
While Unitarian Universalism has never purported to have the “truth”, we are committed to use our best reasoning abilities to help us sort through the mysteries of life. We do not rely on revelation to find our truth. World AIDS Day is a day when an undesirable and downright shameful truth must be told: so many are suffering needlessly. My work has been driven by the truth that HIV/AIDS is 100% preventable. My work has been targeted at the truth that the United States’ steps towards preventing HIV/AIDS have fallen far short of that truth.
It has been an honor to work for the UUA and to see Rev. Sinkford lead this journey towards truth. While there are many religious advocates for health care workers, health infrastructure, and anti-retroviral drugs, few have tackled the complexities of sexuality and spoken the truth as Rev. Sinkford has. Hopefully this courageous moral leadership will inspire others to passionately confront the reality that abstinence-until-marriage programs fail to protect vulnerable people around the world, and they bring us no closer to the end of HIV/AIDS.
Next year the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is due for reauthorization. The UUA Washington Office for Advocacy will be working to ensure that the harmful abstinence-until-marriage funding restrictions currently attached to PEPFAR will be removed. Please join us in advocating for this crucial change in U.S. policy.