Of the many responses to the monumental victory of the gay marriage movement in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, one was a backlash of legislative proposals submitted by conservative groups. A popular target was the regulation of sex-segregated public spaces like bathrooms, schools, etc. – also called “bathroom bills” – in Texas, Florida, Kentucky, and other states. The anti-LGBT bills are meant to either block the extension of anti-discrimination protections that could accommodate free use of sex-segregated public spaces, or strictly ban Transgender people from entering public bathrooms that fit their self-identified gender.
In South Dakota, failed bill HB1008 would have made it illegal for schools to provide accommodations for Transgender students and would have required every public bathroom, shower, or locker room be “designated for and used only by students of the same biological sex.” The bill did not pass, as Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed it last March, affirming the authority of local municipalities to determine their own standards. Nevertheless, a few weeks later a similar bill was passed in North Carolina. The new law, also known as HB2 or the “Charlotte Bill” (more formally: “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act”) came as a response to a local non-discrimination ordinance issued by the Charlotte City Council which provided protections and accommodation to the LGBT community in public bathrooms. HB2 affectively repealed the Charlotte ordinance, and restricted the ability of other cities in the state to expand equality measures beyond the standard determined by HB2. Rich Schragger said that HB2 is “thus an anti-LGBT law masked as an anti-discrimination provision.”
A recent civil action filed by LAMBDA Legal highlights a debate ongoing for the past several years on the issue of “sex-markers” in official documentation to the U.S courts. In different instances, plaintiffs and interest groups have sought to challenge the state’s sex-binary classification system when issuing official identification documents such as passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses and more. Litigation and advocacy around sex-markers in official documentation may be roughly distinguished between groups advocating for easier access to the existing Male /Female categories (“M/F”), mostly by and for the trans community, and to groups asking to break the M/F distinction altogether in favor of an unspecified category: ”X”/”MF”/Unknown/Unspecified. This group is not seeking better access to the existing M/F categories, but is rather pursuing the goal of creating an all-inclusive new category for those who do not identify as males or females, sometimes also referred to as “third sex” or “third gender”.
These challenges were sometimes fruitful in generating administrative adjustments. For example, in 2011 it became possible to mark “X” instead of M/F on passports in Australia. In 2013 Germany approved a change in legislation that allows leaving the “sex” checkbox in birth certificates empty. These developments were presented very positively in the media with headlines like: “Germany got it right by offering a third gender option on birth certificates” in the Guardian, or: “Germany allows ‘indeterminate’ gender at birth” in the BBC, that portrayed them as victories for intersex and LGBT activists. Although the wish to open up sex categories in official documentation seems to be in line with progressive politics, some Intersex advocacy organizations have had misgivings about this line of advocacy. One argument is that being an Intersex or a Trans person does not necessarily dictate a non-specified gender identity and so conjoining intersexuality and transgenderism with non-specified gender identity is incorrect to say the least.
New Guidelines issued by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) offer a new policy for the participation of transgender athletes in sports competitions. According to the new policy, transgender athletes should be given the option to compete without having to undergo genital re-construction surgery. Female to Male (F-M) transgender athletes will be allowed to compete without further limitations, however Male to Female (M-F) transgender athletes would be allowed to compete only after receiving hormonal treatment intended to keep testosterone levels under a fixed threshold for at least a year before the competition. This is a significant change to the previous guidelines, which recommended that transgender athletes be eligible to compete only after a genital re-construction surgery and two years of hormonal therapy. The committee explained that the change of policy was due to “current scientific, social and legal attitudes on transgender issues”. The overriding objective of all policies according to the IOC was ‘fair competition’, so whereas genital appearance was not considered to affect fairness, testosterone levels are still understood to generate a competitive edge.
Breastfeeding is known for being an extremely politicized issue. Past decades introduced us to different interest groups advocating for and against the ideal of “Breast is best”. A recent book by Courtney Jung called ‘Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy’ describes how the ideal of breastfeeding became a focal point of consensus among conflicting political groups like environmentalists and capitalists, leftists and conservatives and many more. The book reveals troubling regulatory schemes which sanction non-breastfeeding moms by denying benefits and iron rich food for their babies. This pattern of body governance echoes Dorothy Roberts’ book ‘Killing the Black Body’ which described how procreation decisions made by poor-black-women, are constantly sanctioned and regulated by the state in order to achieve social objectives, for example, by conditioning welfare benefits in an installation of permanent contraceptives.
In Roberts’ book, a clear distinction is made with respect to the reproductive liberty of black and white women. The contraceptive pill, which symbolizes the emblem of reproductive freedom and is highly identified with the feminist movement, was the product of a scientific endeavor greatly motivated by conservative groups’ desire to control population through family planning schemes, historically targeting the fertility of poor black women. In a similar way, the ideal of “breast is best” has also been operating differently with respect to race and economic status. In Linda Blum’s book ‘At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in Contemporary United States’ she conducts interviews with women who didn’t nurse. She found that in contrast to white women who strove for outer respectability and experienced their lack of breastfeeding as a failure to conform with the breastfeeding imperative, black women emphasized their use in feeding instruments as significant for their independence which was highly evaluated. Accordingly, statistics show generally lower breastfeeding rates among black women in the US.
Ashley is young woman who was born in 1997 with a severe mental and physical disability that prevented her from ever eating, walking or talking by herself. Her mental capacity was also not expected to develop further than that of an infant. In 2004, When she was six and a half years old, Ashley‘s parents and the Seattle Children’s hospital physicians who had been treating her sought to perform on Ashley a novel medical intervention that would include hormonal treatment for growth attenuation, surgical removal of her breast buds, and a hysterectomy. This surgical intervention was presented as beneficial to Ashley by allowing her parents to take care of her longer and postpone institutionalization. The removal of breast buds and hysterectomy were meant to spare Ashley the pain and discomfort of menstruation and the development of fully-developed breasts, and also to “avoid sexualization” in order to make her less vulnerable to sexual abuse when she was ultimately institutionalized. Continue reading →
Earlier this year, the flibanserin pill, aka “female Viagra,” was introduced to the market, generating tons of headlines. After many years in which the plain old (male) Viagra was the sole sexual stimulator in the market, flibanserin was finally approved last August, following an 18-6 vote by the FDA advisory committee.
Before approval, flibanserin was rejected twice, and reports say that even members on the advisory board who voted in favor still had misgivings despite their final decision. Their concerns were driven by doubts regarding flibanserin’s effectiveness to treat low sexual drives. Trials showed that women who took the pill ‘earned’ only 0.7 “sexually satisfying events” in a month, whereas the drop-out rate due to negative side effects was relatively high – 14%. The side effects associated with flibanserin are low blood pressure, dizziness and such.
So what made this low cost-benefit ratio get the advisory committee’s approval the third time around? Some credit mass political campaigns promoted by women’s organizations claiming to advocate women’s interests. One position advocated by the organizations presented the pill as a treatment for a legit medical problem called HSDD (hypoactive sexual desire disorder), and it was said to be a step towards realization of women’s sexuality. The other side of the debate pushed back against what they perceive as medicalizing another realm of women’s sexuality and subjecting it (again) to the gaze of the male expert.
A few weeks ago I ran across this BuzzFeed post, telling the story of Corey Mason, a 14 year old male to female Trans teenager who was filmed getting her first pack of estrogen hormones. Her mom Erica, who uploaded the video to Facebook and YouTube, spurred a social-media discussion on the topic of hormonal treatment for Trans children and youth.
Erica said the vast majority of reactions were very supportive. On the other hand, different views and opinions were put on the table as well, even from people who ally completely with Trans identity politics. One of them, a Trans woman, said she fears from rushing (perhaps gay) teenagers into irreversible treatments, as most Trans kids “GROW OUT OF IT”. This position was also taken by Alice Dreger, a Bioethicist and a historian writing on Intersex issues, in describing the uneasy choice between the two models available at the moment: On the one hand you have the ‘therapeutic model’ offering mental health support to the Trans person and/or family, to help ease up the tensions caused by gender identity dysphoria (GID). This model aims to relax the dysphoria and so avoids any medical irreversible interventions. On the other hand, you have the ‘accommodation model’ asserting there’s nothing wrong with the trans person and/or his/her family, and so offers medical interventions to accommodate it.
Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete that has been in the focus of a recent drama in elite sport. Chand, a gifted athlete and champion, was suspended from participating in competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), after she was found to have high levels of testosterone. A biological condition called “hyperandrogenism” caused Chand to have three times more testosterone than an average woman athlete, similar to that of men. Chand was given the unappealing alternative of undergoing surgery and hormonal treatments meant to “normalize” her so she could race again, or turning to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), she chose the latter.
One would think that in a world in which men and women’s sports are so profoundly separated, distinguishing between male and female athletes would be a no-brainer. Well, it’s not like that at all. Chand’s case can be traced along a history of similar episodes in which female athletes (like South African runner Caster Semanya and others) were suspected for not being “true females,” having to undergo medical scrutiny in order to conclude on the matter. This ambiguity is not special to athletes. It even has a name – “intersex,” an umbrella term describing a range of conditions in which the person’s sex cannot be conclusively determined. To read more on intersex variations click here.
My last post presented the debate over force feeding hunger striking prisoners in Israel. This post will discuss another group subjected to the dramatic means of force feeding in extreme circumstances, Anorexia Nervosa patients (AN).
Although ethical justifications for force-feeding are similar for both Anorexics and Hunger strikers (save life), the legal framework is completely different in each context. Whereas hunger striking prisoners were dealt with via ad-hoc legislation meant to answer national security threats, AN patients are handled within the framework of mental health law. In the U.S., compulsory hospitalization of mental patients occurs through the state’s Civil Commitment Laws, which require dangerousness resulting from a mental illness to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Is the different legal attitude justified? How is it that the same act performed by prisoners is viewed as a political assertion but when done predominantly by adolescent middle-upper class girls, it is considered mental illness?
Mohammad Allan was an administrative detainee in Israel, a Palestinian who had been hunger striking since June 16 to protest his indefinite incarceration. Allan’s health has been deteriorating gradually, and the latest examinations raised concerns that he suffered irreversible brain damage. The crisis in Allan’s health created a tangle for the Israeli government, since releasing Allan was feared to serve as a precedent that would encourage more hunger strikes and symbolize submission to this type of protest, whereas force-feeding him might be considered unethical-illegal torture. This dilemma has brought a head-on clash between Israeli government officials and the Israeli National Medical Association, and led to an internal split between medical professionals regarding their positions on the ethics of the controversial practice of force-feeding.
In the midst of Allan’s health deterioration, the Israeli parliament passed a new law called “Hunger Strike Damage Prevention Act” also known as the “force-feeding law”. The law allows doctors to force-feed prisoners in immediate and imminent danger of irreversible severe damage or death, with a court order. The court could allow such force-feeding after hearing the prisoner (if possible) and an ethics committee recommendation. Moreover, the forced feeding should be carried out in a dignified manner, avoiding pain and suffering for the prisoner. It was declared that physicians will not be forced to comply with force-feeding under this law if they refuse.
The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2015-2016 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research. Continue reading →