Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lactivists Fight for Women's Rights

Lactivists' nursing anger
Walters' remark on breast-feeding
sparks moms' protest at ABC
By Amy Harmon New York Times News Service
Published June 7, 2005

The calls for a "nurse-in" began on the Internet mere moments after Barbara Walters uttered a negative remark about public breast-feeding on her ABC talk show, "The View."

Inspired by similar events organized by a growing group of unlikely activists nationwide, the protest brought about 200 women to ABC's headquarters Monday. "Shame on View," their signs read. "Babies Were Born to be Breastfed."

Walters, who had said a few weeks ago on the show that the sight of a woman breast-feeding on an airplane next to her had made her uncomfortable, said through a spokesman that "it was a particular circumstance, and we are surprised that it warrants a protest."

But the rally at ABC is only the most visible example of a recent wave of "lactivism." Prodded by mothers tired of being asked to adjourn to a bathroom while nursing in a public space, six states have recently passed laws giving a woman the right to breast-feed wherever she "is otherwise authorized to be."

An Ohio bill saying a woman is "entitled to breast-feed her baby in any place of public accommodation" passed the Legislature last month over the objection of one representative who wanted to exempt businesses from liability for accidents caused by "spillage."

"I really don't know any women who `spill,"' said Lisa Wilson, mother of a 4-month-old in Fairview Park, Ohio, who helped organize a nurse-in at a local deli to support the bill.

Trying for federal law

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) hosted a nurse-in on the Capitol's Cannon Terrace last month as she reintroduced federal legislation to amend the Civil Rights Act to protect women from employment discrimination for using a breast pump or feeding babies during breaks.

Nursing mothers are pressuring businesses too. Burger King has declared they are welcome. Starbucks, the target of a letter-writing campaign that asked "What's more natural than coffee and milk?" also has.

The flurry of moves come as the number of American women who choose to breast-feed has climbed from about half in 1990 to close to 70 percent.

"We're all told that breast-feeding is the best, healthiest thing you can do for your child," said Lorig Charkoudian, 32, who started the Web site www.nurseatstarbucks.com after being asked to use the bathroom to nurse at her local Starbucks. "And then we're made to feel ashamed to do it without being locked in our homes."

Legislators, business owners and family members are debating how to reconcile the health benefits of nursing with the prevailing cultural squeamishness toward nursing in public.

"It's nothing against breast-feeding. It's about exposing yourself for people who don't want to see it," said Scotty Stroup, the owner of a restaurant in Round Rock, Texas, where a nursing mother was refused service last fall.

But the new generation of lactivists compare discomfort with seeing breast-feeding in public to discomfort with seeing interracial couples or gays holding hands.

"It's like any other prejudice. They have to get used to it," said Rebecca Odes, who attended the ABC protest. "People don't want to see it because they feel uncomfortable with it, and they feel uncomfortable with it because they don't see it."

Whether to breast-feed in public, many nursing mothers say, is not simply a matter of being respectful. They cite research by the Food and Drug Administration showing that the degree of embarrassment a mother feels about breast-feeding plays a bigger role in determining whether she is likely to breast-feed than household income, length of maternity leave or employment status.

Medical advice on practice

The American Academy of Pediatrics urges that women feed their babies only breast milk for the first six months and continue breast-feeding for at least an additional six months. But while more women are breast-feeding for the first few weeks, fewer than one-third are still nursing after six months.

"To many mothers, breast-feeding runs up against sexual attitudes toward the breast," said Dr. Lawrence Gartner, who leads the academy's research on breast-feeding. "That reduces the prevalence of breast-feeding, which is a bad situation because duration of breast-feeding is an important factor in children's health."

Even mothers who are committed to nursing say they are shaken when confronted.

"People make you feel like you're doing something dirty almost," said Rene Harrell, 26, of Chantilly, Va., who recently was asked to leave a Delta Airlines lounge in Atlanta as she nursed her 8-month-old son, Elijah.

Monday, June 06, 2005

New Women's E-News Article Highlights ProKanDo

Hands Off My Medical History

By Ann Farmer, Women's eNewsPosted on June 6, 2005

A woman seeking reproductive health care usually starts by filling out a questionnaire detailing her complete medical history including whether she is sexually active, past illnesses, number of pregnancies, number of live births, contraceptive use, marital status, gender of her sexual partner, occupation, address and more.

Yet, as the legal battles over reproductive rights continue to increase in number and intensity, more and more women have become reluctant to be open and frank.

And after last week--when an Indiana judge on May 30 denied the request of Planned Parenthood of Indiana to stop the state's Attorney General Steve Carter from accessing the medical records of its young clients--it may be even harder for doctors to gather an accurate health history from women and teens.

Planned Parenthood of Indiana filed its lawsuit in March after the state attorney general's office implemented the state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which apparently overrides federal health privacy laws, to investigate whether more than forty Planned Parenthood affiliates are properly reporting cases of rape and molestation involving girls under 14. The lawsuit also asked the Superior Court judge to require the return of records already taken by the attorney general's office. Following the judge's denial, Planned Parenthood requested a stay in the case and has vowed to appeal to the Indiana Court of Appeals if necessary.

"I think it's very disturbing and frightening," says Dorothy Greene, a New York City writer who had an abortion years ago but chooses not to share that information with her doctors. "I don't know anymore where these records end up or who sees them. I don't want to feel that the personal private records of mine will be open to scrutiny by someone who has no business looking at them except for their personal ideological reasons."

Indiana is the second state in a matter of months in which prosecutors have sought full access to medical records held by reproductive health clinics.

Kansas Subpoenas

In February, Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline served subpoenas on two Kansas reproductive health clinics seeking access to the medical records of at least 90 women who had used its abortion services.

Attorneys for the two clinics--Comprehensive Health, a Planned Parenthood clinic located in the suburbs of Kansas City and Women's Health Care Services, located in Wichita--filed an appeal on March 16 with the Kansas Supreme Court to block Kline's access to the unedited files, which include the patient's name, medical history, psychological profile and sexual history.

"We made a commitment to our patients that their records are confidential and private," says Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which, along with Women's Health Care Services, has not released any files to date.

The decision on whether to uphold Kline's injunction is pending review by the seven-member Kansas Supreme Court and may not be issued for months.

The Kansas women whose medical records were subpoenaed have expressed outrage at what they see as an incursion into their privacy, says Julie Burkhardt, executive director of ProKanDo, a pro-choice political action committee that she founded along with Dr. George Tiller, medical director of Women's Health Care Services. "They're very concerned that a non-medical official was going to be searching through their medical records."

Legal Violations

Both clinics cited in the subpoenas offer legal second-trimester abortion services.
Kline says that he's investigating possible violations of a state law limiting late-term abortions and another that requires the mandatory reporting of suspected child rape.

"This is a fishing expedition," retorts Brownlie of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, noting that Kline is poised to run next year for either a second term as attorney general or for the governorship. "We fully comply with Kansas' laws."

Whitney Watson, spokesperson for Kansas Attorney General Kline, refused to discuss any potential evidence, saying only that the District Court judge who signed the subpoenas had determined that probable cause existed.
Critics say Kline is pushing an anti-choice agenda.

"He has been very clear throughout his political career that he is out to get abortion providers," Burkhardt says. "When this inquisition broke back in February, he repeatedly said that this is about protecting children from child rapists."

But she says that Kline has subpoenaed the records of all women--not just the very young--who had abortions at or after 22 weeks of pregnancy during 2003.
She says if Kline's motive was to uncover possible instances of child sexual abuse he'd also be looking at the records of family physicians, psychologists, social workers and others.

When asked about that, Watson responded, "You don't know that we're not."
A spokesperson for the Indiana attorney general's office also says that it is pursuing its legal obligation to investigate potential wrongdoing involving minors.

Signs of Intimidation

Although Planned Parenthood declines to say exactly how much activity it lost at the Kansas clinic, it contends that the empty places in its appointment books indicate that Kline's actions were intimidating women who would normally be seeking its health care services.

"We are concerned about the chilling effect," says Brownlie. "We had phone calls from patients wanting to know if their privacy was at risk."

Concealing their medical histories can put patients' health at risk, says Katharine O'Connell, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.

For instance, says O'Connell, many teens today take the acne drug Accutane. If they do not reveal to their doctors that they are pregnant, they might continue taking the drug, which can cause serious birth defects.

"Doctors trust that patients will be open to them," says O'Connell.

Health workers, however, say patients often feel there is a bigger risk in sharing their information.

"What people leave out are the things they're ashamed of or perceive others to have judgment about," says Leslie Rottenberg, senior director of social services for Planned Parenthood of New York. She cited sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and abortions as likely omissions.

Rottenberg adds women most often omit their abortion history, worrying that somehow their employers might find out and that minors, in particular, are concerned about insurance information reaching their parents.

"There is definite concern about where that information goes and who will know and who will have access to it," she says.

Discouraging Headlines

Carole Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, believes even more women would conceal their abortion history if they knew what was going on in Kansas and Indiana.

"When young women in society see headline after headline that says the attorney general is seeking abortion records, it just adds to the sense that abortion is stigmatized. And that your records may be subpoenaed."

This stigma surrounding abortion, she says, compels many women to reach for their pocketbook rather than use their health insurance to cover the procedure.
"They're afraid to let their insurance company know or have it become part of their permanent medical record."

Both state cases follow a failed attempt in 2003 by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to gain access to women's medical records across the nation as part of litigation to defend an anti-choice law passed by Congress which would have banned abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy.

In addition, in 2002, after the discovery of a dismembered infant in Iowa, local law enforcement officials subpoenaed approximately 1,000 positive pregnancy test results from a Planned Parenthood affiliate there in attempts to locate the mother. Months later they withdrew the subpoena after lawyers for Planned Parenthood of Iowa successfully appealed to the state Supreme Court to block and review the lower court order. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller cited a deficit of time and resources as his reason for backing off from that intrusion into women's privacy.

Ann Farmer is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Cynthia Cooper contributed reporting to this article.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/22157/