Hello from Houston (International Convocation of UU Women)

Hello from Houston, where I have swapped my Minnesota boots for–no, not cowboy boots–sandals! As I talk to folks back home and learn they’ve been dumped with eight more inches of snow, each blooming rose here smells a little sweeter.

And nothing smells as sweet as a roomful of committed activists–okay, I will drop that metaphor right here. We are mostly UU, mostly women, mostly from the US, mostly white, mostly older, BUT around the edges of what is familiar, very interesting differences: Folks here from 20 countries, new voices in plenary with much to say and teach, women listening to one another carefully about the way that many of us have complex identities around international matters and commitments.

Here’s my favorite line from one of the women who worked tirelessly for years to bring this event together: “It all started in the back row of a UU choir practice.”

Here are some of the most interesting questions we have been asked, as we sit in plenary:
“How do we connect capital to community, and distribute it so that everyone can use it?” (from Rebecca Adamson, Cherokee Nation, from First Peoples Worldwide, who engages in amazing advocacy around indigenous people’s rights, including shareholder advocacy.
“How else would we have learned to speak if it wasn’t imitating the sounds of nature?” (Rebecca Adamson)
“What conditions bring out the worst in us? What brings out the best in us?” (Frances Moore Lappe)
“What if God is our baby to bear?” (Rebecca Parker, quoting Annie Dillard)
“What is the antidote to violence centered religion?” (Rebecca Parker)

I could go on and on, but I am late for morning worship and so will not. Look at www.uua.org for more info about what’s going on here; Eric Cherry is writing about it. He and Orelia Busch will also be blogging about it.

Rev. Meg Riley

The 36th Anniversary of Roe v Wade

Today marks the anniversary of the historic supreme court decision that allowed women access to safe and legal abortion. It is a day to celebrate the success of women such as Dottie Doyle, a former state representative from Maine and a Unitarian Universalist who worked with so many others to help decriminalize abortion in the United States. Read her story here on the UUA website. After learning about Dorothy and her compatriots, I was struck but not surprised to learn that activism surrounding a woman’s right to choose was spurred on and supported by a resolution adopted at the 1968 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly to repeal laws restricting or criminalizing abortion. UUs all over the U.S. and Canada acted on this resolution. In Michigan, for example, many women worked tirelessly circulating petitions and collecting signatures in the face of threats, verbal abuse and ostracism. Without a doubt, Unitarian Universalist efforts contributed to the right to choose when to bear children being upheld as a constitutional right of women in the United States of America.

If a resolution adopted at General Assembly can make such a contribution, I have no doubt in my mind that, with the inauguration of a new administration and a new day dawning in Washinton, our voices as people of faith can and will be heard. As the new Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues at the Washington Office for Advocacy I am grateful to those who have worked for justice before me. Together we can have faith that we can help to change the laws of our country so that they reflect our values to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. I can have faith that I will see such changes not in some far-off dreamed future, but in the next year or two. I draw joy and strength and courage from that faith.

While celebrating and anticipating successes, however, I remain cautious, and I feel compelled to point out that Roe v Wade still needs our support and protection on all fronts. In most states, access to abortion is still restricted by mandates for parental notification and/or consent. In many states, women can barely seek information about abortion due to legal bans on counseling, biased counseling, and mandatory delays for abortion care. In all but the three states of Alabama, New Hampshire, and Vermont, health care providers can refuse care entirely to a woman seeking an abortion (see naral.org). These barriers to access continue to disproportionately affect poor women and women of color who have long struggled not only to gain access to quality and affordable health care but to be allowed to make informed choices about their own fertility. A woman living in a rural, northern county of my home state of Wisconsin would probably have to pay for her own abortion as well as travel for 6 to 8 hours, if she had access to a car and could drive, in order to reach a clinic that would perform the procedure.

In short, we still have a lot of work to do. True reproductive justice means that our societies protect girls and women from rape and sexual assault by teaching all children and adults that each person the right to make decisions about the sacred boundaries of their bodies. Reproductive justice means that no woman anywhere in the world is forced or coerced into bearing children when she does not choose to do so. Reproductive justice means that all women have access to safe and legal means of birth control and accurate information about possible side-effects and how to use them. Reproductive justice means that women and men undergo medical procedures that may affect their ability to have children only after giving their full and informed consent. Reproductive justice means that poor women and women of color are not denied or restricted from accessing any form of reproductive health care, nor from making an informed decision about any medication or procedure.

Access to safe, legal, confidential and affordable abortion is a right and a milestone along to path to achieving Reproductive Justice for all. I am proud to be part of an organization that has been working to this end for over 40 years, and I hope to do my best to continue in the footsteps of those who have walked this path before me.

The Bush Administration and Birth Control

The Bush administration has just drafted a set of regulations which would widen the definition of abortion to include various types of contraceptives, including birth control pills. In the administration’s proposed definition, abortion would include, “any of the various procedures — including the prescription and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action — that results in the termination of the life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.”

The regulation would deny federal funding to any health center, hospital or clinic that does not allow health care employees to opt out of providing services that would violate the employee’s moral beliefs. This would include the dissemination of birth control.

As reported by The Washington Post, the regulation also mentions that “many states have recently passed laws requiring health plans to pay for contraception, pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control, and hospitals to offer Plan B to women who have been raped.” The administrations inclusion of these facts indicates a belief that health care for women, including survivors of rape is something that is wrong with the current health care system.

States requiring health plans to cover contraceptives is a big step for feminism and reproductive health activists, but now we have an administration that wants to limit these plans. By not funding health care that dispenses contraceptives, the Bush administration is putting thousands of women, specifically low-income women, at risk.

Allowing members of the medical community to decide when or if they should give women reproductive health treatment puts women at risk of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and psychological harm.

This is not only an issue of reproductive choice, it is also an issue of the rights of women in general, and even how we respond to domestic violence.

You can protect a woman’s access to birth control by telling Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to reject this harmful regulation.

Ending a Culture of Rape in the Military

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/.

March for Women’s Lives Remembered

Four years ago, when I was still relatively new to DC and All Souls Church Unitarian, an amazing thing happened. UUs from all over the country converged on Washington DC to participate in the March for Women’s Lives, a demonstration in support of women’s rights. I mean literally – almost every state was represented. Many important events have happened in DC and at All Souls since then, but still nothing like that. After a Sunday worship service with Dr. Rebecca Parker giving the sermon, we spilled out on to the streets and made our way to the National Mall to join other demonstrators. Estimates vary but anywhere between 800,000 and 1.15 million people participated. I can’t count that high. All I know is that I have been in many protests in my life but had never experienced anything like that peaceful, joyous, yet determined sea of humanity. A multitude of women, men, and children all together.

The other thing that I remember quite vividly about that march is that it was the first time I had ever protested as an identifiable part of a faith tradition. I had been a UU. I had gone to protests. I had never protested as a UU, as a person of faith. And it was extremely empowering.

And the woman who made it all possible was Kierstin Homblette.

Kierstin was the Legislative Assistant for Women’s Issues/Clara Barton Memorial Intern for the Washington Office at the time of the march. Much of her time was spent helping to plan and organize for this huge event. She is now finishing a tour in the Peace Corps in Senegal. When I asked her for her reflections on that day, she had this to offer:

It was so much more than a gathering of people in support of a cause. The March for Women’s Lives was something different for each of us. For me, the March and the months of planning that led up to it were an education in the power that I possess as a liberal person of faith. Organizing thousands of Unitarian Universalists to travel to Washington DC and worship and march together was the most difficult and time consuming part of my time at the UUA Washington Office. But the feeling of marching, singing, and witnessing with my fellow UUs on the Mall that day was also the most rewarding and fulfilling moment of my two years there.

By marching that day, we as Unitarian Universalists witnessed for what we believe and for what makes up the core of who we are. We didn’t just talk about it, or write about it, or even sing about it. We got out there and said it with our presence, with our bodies and feet and loud voices. And I marched next to my mother, who traveled all the way from Florida to raise her own voice with mine. Four years later, this remains a seminal moment for me – a turning point in my faith and in my confidence in the importance of our collective voice in the public discourse.

Whose fault is it? The Jamie Lynn Spears pregnancy scandal

Jamie Lynn Spears, 16 year-old sister of Brittney Spears and star of Nickelodeon’s hit show Zoey 101 is making waves with her announcement Wednesday that she is three months pregnant.

The media and bloggers have been adding their two cents to the issue for the last couple of days. Everyone from feministing.com to The Washington Post has covered the story. I hadn’t given the news much thought until I found this article in The Washington Post online. The article itself is similar to the others out there but at the end is a poll that asks:

Who is most to blame for Jamie Lynn Spears’s underage pregnancy?

The public is given five choices:
-Jamie Lynn and boyfriend Casey Aldridge, who should have known better.
-Sister Britney for setting a bad example.
-Mom Lynn, who seems to be a two-time loser at this point.
-A society ill-equipped to teach teens about sex.
-Blame? Let’s make a silk purse out of this: ‘Zoey 101: Sex Ed!’

I looked at the choices, laughed a little and casually clicked what I thought was the most logical answer: A society ill-equipped to teach teens about sex.

With the surprised comments from Jamie Lynn and her mom, it seemed obvious to me that there is a serious lack of sex education in the Spears household.

Jamie’s mom, Lynn: “I didn’t believe it because Jamie Lynn’s always been so conscientious. She’s never late for her curfew. I was in shock. I mean, this is my 16-year-old baby.”

Jamie Lynn in OK! magazine: “It was a shock for both of us, so unexpected, I was in complete and total shock and so was he.”

Yes, Lynn, your “baby” can get pregnant without breaking curfew, especially when her boyfriend lives in the house. Yes, Jaime, you can get pregnant if you have unprotected sex.

Maybe it’s because I’m more attuned to the horrors of the sex education in this country, but even so those statements seemed like there was some misinformation.
However, it seems that the majority of Washington Post readers feel that it is Jaime’s fault (51%) and followed by her mothers fault (35%). A mere 5% thought it was the failure of sex education.

Of course Jamie and her boyfriend should have been responsible, but if no one ever educated them about how to be responsible, they can’t bear the brunt of the blame. The same goes for her mother, it would be nice to think that she would know by now, but her comment clearly shows her lack of understanding of teenagers.

National Polls have shown that most parents are in favor of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, yet (unless Post readers are significantly different from the rest of the nation, which I doubt) the poll results indicate that there is a disconnect between support for sex education and understanding why it’s needed.

Instead of putting blame on Jamie or mom, why not take this time to highlight the need for comprehensive sexuality education? Parents and children alike should be educated in human sexuality and understand their bodies and be able to have a consensual and safe relationship. Thankfully, many news outlets have highlighted the issue in segments about how to talk to your children about sex. The Today Show had author and psychologist Dr. Gail Saltz on the show to give advice to parents on how to talk to their kids. Unfortunately, the Today Show anchors countered that with their worry about talking to young children and the possibility that maybe you don’t have to.

This story is undoubtedly going to reach the children that watch Zoey 101. Message boards discussing the event have many posts from parents and teachers that say kids as young as eight are talking about the news. Let’s hope that parents take the time and advice from Dr. Gail Saltz and others to give their children age appropriate information about sex instead of just condemning Jamie Lynn.