Friday, August 1, 2014

Reproductive Rights and the Peace Corps

In the recent Hobby Lobby ruling where, in words of Huffington Post blogger H.A Goodman, "Religious Freedom" became an official euphemism for imposing religious doctrine... there has been a backlash.
Suddenly the media is taking a good, hard look at the restrictions women face on a day-to-day basis when it comes to controlling their own fertility. Add to that a recent House committee initiative that allows Peace Corps women to finally have access to abortions (though only in the cases of rape, incest, and life-threatening pregnancy complications) as well as an expose by the New York Times about the health care that Peace Corps Volunteers receive around the world and it is clear that we may have the beginning of a nascent sea change in the way women's health care is viewed in the United States. I may be hoping too much on that last conclusion... but when a Supreme Court decision causes more rage than acceptance it may be time to take advantage of that discontent.
The recent discussion of women's health care in the Peace Corps reminds me of my own experience receiving health care while in Mongolia in 2007. As a Peace Corps volunteer I was given a great deal of free antibiotics, excellent health care advice, and lots of care by the Peace Corps-Mongolia Medical Officer... a gruff, plain-talking, yet humorous guy who clearly loved his job. When asked about abortion, however, it was clear that the Peace Corps Medical Officer did not support abortion rights. Nevertheless he was professional and told us exactly what Peace Corps women would receive in terms of help should they find themselves with unwanted pregnancies: not much. "You can go back to the US on your own dime," said the Peace Corps Medical officer.
Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia in 2006, by the way, earned a stipend of only a hundred dollars a month. A round trip ticket between the Mongolian capital city of Ulaan Baatar and the US cost upwards of two grand. "You can spend time in the US for a week or so and then fly back to Mongolia and we will not ask any questions about what you did." That was all the Peace Corps would offer a Peace Corps Volunteer seeking an abortion: No questions. She can come and go, on her own vacation time. Period. No financial help. No counseling. Just no questions... like the volunteer was going to the US to conduct an illicit drug deal, not a medical operation.
Never mind that rape is a huge problem for Peace Corps women. Even in a relatively low-crime country like Mongolia, rape is a growing problem. During my term there, two of my friends were the objects of rape attempts. One stopped her attacker by biting off his tongue. The other woman was not lucky enough to stop the rape. Fortunately she did not become pregnant. Both women, in an incredible show of bravery, did not allow their experiences to cause them to go home early. They stayed and finished out their Peace Corps terms. I don't know if I would have had the strength of character to do the same had I been in their position.
Back then a Peace Corps volunteer who had become pregnant through a rape would not have received any financial help to get an abortion. Only now, in 2014, has a House committee allowed a resolution to pass to give Peace Corps women full financial aid for abortions... but only, of course, in the case of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancy complications. It's not perfect, but it's a helluva lot better than nothing.
Besides a few instances where drunk men tried to break down the door of my apartment in Mongolia (they didn't succeed) or follow me home one night in Arkhangai (only to be chased off by my neighbor), I had not been been much of an object of male aggression- let alone rape- during my time in Mongolia. I never felt fearful of my life or person- which was perhaps naive of me- and instead had a grand old time while a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was in my mid-twenties during the first decade of the twenty-first century. I was free and adventurous. Nothing could hurt me.
During one night in Ulaan Baatar I ended up gleefully drunk and making out with an equally intoxicated American tourist (whom I will call "Steve") at a karaoke bar. We ran back to the tiny hostel where we were staying, locked ourselves in the only private room there (the laundry room), threw towels down on the floor, and had sex right there. After we were finished, I lay naked on the towels giggling. I was very mellow, but Steve seemed quite antsy. "Come on, we need to get out of here," he said, "At least help me get the towels back on the machine. The staff are gonna be here any second to start the morning laundry."
"Yeah, yeah," I said, sitting up and picking up my clothes in a not-very-rushed way. Meanwhile Steve seemed suddenly hypnotized by something in his hand.
"Um...." he said, "Umm.... this broke a long time ago."
I looked in his hand. There was the gooey remains of the condom we had used. It was indeed split at the end.
"Did you, like,..." I asked him.
"Oh yeah, I came right inside of you," Steve responded, panic growing in his eyes, "So um, you can get 'Plan B' here, right? As a Peace Corps volunteer? I know you're a Peace Corps volunteer. They give you 'Plan B' here, right?"
"Yeah, I think so," I said, though in reality I had no idea. Steve looked so upset though that I had to reassure him.
"I can't become a dad!" said Steve, "I'm only twenty-two! I'm planning a big backpacking trip around the world! I can't have a kid! You need to get 'Plan B.' Like, today."
"Don't worry, I'll get it," I reassured him.
Four hours later, still the very early morning, I walked into the Peace Corps office. I sat by the door of the clinic, located on the second floor, and waited for the current nurse practitioner to arrive and open her office door. The usual Peace Corps medical officer was in the United States and a pleasant woman whom I will call Margaret was subbing for him until he returned to Mongolia.
I sat waiting that morning. I looked at the posters outside the glass office door. The posters were warning about HIV transmission and the woes of not distilling your water before drinking it. A large box of condoms was on the table next to me. The condoms were bright red and there were cheery signs indicating that all Peace Corps volunteers should help themselves to as many condoms as we wished. We usually did. It was from that box that I had taken the unfortunate condom that had split earlier.
Margaret entered her office. "Hello, hello, nice to see you so early!" she said cheerfully. I entered her office smiling. I liked Margaret.
"My God, but it's smoggy out there!" Margaret said, putting her purse on a chair and taking off her jacket, "You can't walk outside for five minutes here in Ulaanbaatar without having to rinse the coal dust from your hair."
"I heard that Ulaanbaatar is, like, the second-most polluted city in the world," I said, "There's a city in western China that's worse, but only barely."
"I'm not surprised," Margaret said, "I'm seeing a lot of volunteers with swollen tonsils, sore throats... the air here is poison."
"Yeah, definitely."
"So what can I do for you?"
"Well, I need the 'Plan B' pill," I said, "I was wondering if I could get it here."
Margaret's face immediately changed. Her cheery smile vanished. Instead her expression became stern and disgusted. She looked at me with cold, unfriendly eyes. I was quite disconcerted.
"Oh," Margaret said, "So. When was the last time you had sex?"
"About four hours ago."
"That recent? And what happened? You just decided to not wear a condom?" She sneered, "Just couldn't be bothered?"
Even now I can remember being shocked by how coldly she sniffed at me, assuming that I was irresponsible. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, a teacher, an adviser, and a safe sex counselor at the small high school where I worked. And yet Margaret, my friend until one minute ago, saw me as being at fault when it came to possibly being pregnancy.
"No," I responded, "We used a condom."
"And where did you get the condom?"
"Here! from the box outside the door!"
"Oh." Margaret shrugged and turned to deliberately avoid eye contact with me... like someone who has suddenly decided that maybe it was in her best interest to change the subject. "We've been getting a lot of complaints from Volunteers about the condoms breaking. I'll have to look into that."
I was stunned. The condoms were breaking a lot?? And the Peace Corps Medical Officer was treating the issue like not a big deal?!?!?! A condom breakage IS a big deal! It puts people at risk for pregnancy, which is more serious in Mongolia than in the US. The infant and maternal mortality rates in Mongolia are almost seven times as much as in the US. also, while Mongolia still has a very low rate of HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis are on the rise.
The United States Peace Corps is supposed to be working to spread safe sex awareness in all the countries where it works... and yet here was a Peace Corps Medical Officer continuing to allow defective condoms to be distributed to Peace Corps Volunteers. Almost every Peace Corps Volunteer I knew, the vast majority single, had had a Mongolian sex partner at one point or another. Many Peace Corps men had Mongolian girlfriends and some even got married before completing their term of service.
Because of one Medical Officer's lax attitude towards helping sexually-active Peace Corps Volunteers- which is basically almost all Peace Corps Volunteers- the Peace Corps in Mongolia may have been doing more to SPREAD sexually transmitted diseases than prevent them!
Nevertheless, as I sat in the Peace Corps clinic being given the evil eye by Margaret, I could feel that there was something larger at work. There was a rule. There was a law. There was SOMETHING that, for all of Margaret's sneers, was protecting me and forcing her to do her job and protect my health.
Margaret gave me the Plan B pill. She curtly informed me of the procedure involved in taking the Plan B pills (one now, one in 48 hours), of the possible side effects (nausea from the sudden spike in estrogen caused by the pills), and sent me on my way. I took the pills. I did not get pregnant.
Three days later Steve and I were on a train during a day trip to Western Mongolia. We had not had sex again. Perhaps the pregnancy scare had rattled us too much. Instead we just acted like friends, drinking beer and talking about various adventures we had had while traveling.
One night in a small café, eating dumplings and drinking milk tea, our conversation turned towards the 2008 election. It was 2007 and politics were all over the "Time" magazines that the Peace Corps mailed to volunteers out in the Mongolian countryside.
"Who do you support for president?" Steve asked.
"Oh, definitely Obama," I said, "I mean, I like Hillary Clinton but she's not as electable as Obama... and the Democrats really need to win after all the destruction that George W. Bush has done."
Steve looked at me evenly. "So, you're a Democrat."
"Oh yeah," I said, "Why? Who are you supporting?"
"Who do you think?"
"I have no idea. Obama?"
Steve laughed. "Yeah, right. Yeah... people think I'm a Democrat because I travel a lot. I'm not though, I'm a Republican."
Steve then went into the usual Bush-apologist mode. Steve worshipped Giuliani and Ron Paul. He supported George W. Bush during both elections and canvassed for the guy in 2004. "I mean, yeah, Bush has made some mistakes, but come on. You have to look at it from his point of view. He was only president for a few months when 9/11 happened. I mean, he had a hard job!! And it's aged him! Like, people need to cut Bush a break. Besides I like Bush's position on all the issues. I like his foreign policy. I like his position on financial independence and I like the fact that he's pro-life..."
I was stunned. "I like the fact that he's pro-life." Steve's words echoed in my head, words from the same mouth that had shrieked "I can't become a dad!" only 72 hours earlier.
I had protected Steve. I had taken the necessary medication. The Peace Corps had protected Steve. Their rules had compelled a forced-birth medical officer to give the pills. The politicians and the activists had protected Steve. They had made sure that government agencies protected reproductive rights to a certain extent.
We had protected Steve, but Steve didn't protect us. Steve continued to vote for forced-birth politicians.
Steve saw my stricken expression and he laughed sheepishly. "Yeah, I know," he said, "I suppose I'm a bit of a hypocrite. It happens."
Sheepish laughter? I was enraged. A dieter caught munching a doughnut is allowed to look sheepish. A smoker trying to quit caught sneaking a puff is allowed to look sheepish. A married man peeking into a "Playboy" is allowed to look sheepish. A man who demands that the pro-choice movement help him yet continues to vote for politicians who continually repress a woman's reproductive rights is not allowed to get away with mere sheepishness. He needs to look criminally ashamed for the great flaws in his character.
Later I told a story to a friend of mine, a gynecologist whom I will call George, who had originally been studying to perform abortions while a med student. After another doctor had had a frank discussion with George about the dangers he would face working at a known abortion clinic... George decided to not go into that field. "He told me that I would be targeted, that my family would be targeted," George said, "He said they would go so far as to sit outside my house, play hymns at high volume, harass neighbors, stalk my children... these people have nothing better to do. If I was lucky I would only get a bomb threat once a month. If I was unlucky, I would be shot."
When I told George about what Steve said as I sat across from him with the "Plan B" pill still swimming in my system, George said matter-of-factly "Oh yeah, you'll get that."
"Really?"
"Oh yeah! Oh, I've had friends tell me of high-up pro-life state representatives storming into their clinics and demanding abortions for female friends. A lot of times it's GOP dads who want to help their daughters. They're like 'Oh yeah, save the babies! Outlaw abortions!' ... but when their fourteen-year-old daughters come up to them weeping and saying 'Dad, I've made a terrible mistake,'.... the only babies these guys see are the children they raised begging them for help. They know the only moral thing to do would be to help their young daughters terminate their early pregnancies.... not force the children to go through the stress and pain of childbirth.
This conversation still rings in my head whenever I read stories like how Tennessee Republican Scott Desjarlais, the "pro-life" Congressional representative who had urged his ex-wife and his mistress (!) to have abortions is again running for Congress in 2014.
Should he be reelected, and Desjarlais may well be reelected considering he is currently running against no less than seven badly-preparedRepublicans in a heavily-conservative district where a Democrat has as much of a chance of winning as John Boehner has of passing a comprehensive immigration bill.... the same pattern will continue. Desjarlais will still craft anti-abortion bills in Congress while continuing to rely on the doctors he is trying to put out of business and indirectly encouraging other people to harass.
As my friend George said: "They kill us and still we continue to help them."

Originally posted to Aleriakatz on Thu Jul 31, 2014 at 02:25 PM PDT.

Also republished by Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism.

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