US education

In the United States, some school districts have already started the new school year and the rest will follow over the next couple of weeks.

In many places, the situation is fraught.

First, an organizational primer for those outside the US. The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national education system. The various states exercise control over the curriculum and policies to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the state. The greatest degree of control usually rests with local school boards.

It’s a mixed blessing.

In some districts, the local school boards have bought into the notion that something as simple as having a book that includes a gay character in the library is akin to “grooming” students to be gay. Or that it isn’t permissible to discuss racism because it might make white students feel bad or guilty. This puts teachers in the uncomfortable position of being afraid to teach history, civics, literature, science, etc. in the way that they were trained to do as educators.

Some of these issues are even more pronounced when they become a state policy. The most prominent example of this at the moment is Florida. This school year marks the beginning of enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act, informally known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The most prominent provision of the law is that there must be no classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The reasoning is that these topics should be totally controlled by (heterosexual) parents.

But, here’s the thing. We use gendered language ALL THE TIME. Some of the first sight words that children learn – mother, father, boy, girl, man, woman, he, she – are all gendered terms. Are teachers supposed to use gender-neutral words at all times, referring to students, parents, and siblings rather than using such common terms as boys and girls, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters? What if a student asks why the family picture a classmate drew has two moms or two dads? Will the teacher be sued if they say anything beyond “ask your parents”?

Florida is also facing what has been termed a “critical teacher shortage.” It’s hard to say how much is due to curriculum concerns versus low pay, lack of administrative support, large class sizes, contract provisions, etc. Teacher shortages are fairly common in the United States, especially in math and science. To fill gaps, some states allow people to teach subjects in which they are not certified or even allow people to teach who are not certified at all.

Meanwhile, teachers and schools are under COVID-related pressures. Although almost all students, teachers, and staff are eligible, many remain unvaccinated, raising the risk of illness. During the pandemic, some students fell far behind academically during the period of remote instruction and need highly qualified teachers and extra tutoring to help them catch up to grade level. Teachers are also struggling with the mental health and developmental needs of students who faced fear, uncertainty, and isolation for months and now struggle with inattention, misbehavior, and lack of age-appropriate social skills. Some teachers are opting to retire as soon as they are eligible rather than continue under these stresses.

In some areas, schools are dealing with church/state issues, as well. Because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government may not establish a religion. However, a couple of recent decisions by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court have poked holes in what had been termed the wall of separation between church and state. Both cases benefit the expression of Christianity; I wonder if the decisions would have been the same if they had been about public prayer by Muslims, for example. In some localities or states, there are even instances of (white) Christian nationalism creeping into school curricula, such as teaching that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not, and downplaying the role of enslavement and indigenous land theft/genocide in our national history.

A lot of this is supposedly done in the name of parental rights, that is, that parents are the ones who should determine what their children learn in public school. I don’t agree with that. I look upon public education as a public good. I want free, high-quality education for every student so they can grow into responsible, mature members of our communities. They need to learn wide-ranging skills in communication, quantitative and scientific skills, technology, social studies and civics, and the arts. Having a broad base helps to develop critical and creative thinking and to identify where a student’s interests lie. Learning in community teaches how to work together and solve problems in a civil way. That was my expectation when I chose to send my children to public school. If my priority had been to control what they were exposed to, I would have opted to home school them. If I wanted them to have learn through a faith-based approach, I would have sent them to a religious school.

I don’t believe that a subgroup of parents should be able to dictate the learning environment of all children in our public schools. If a parent thinks that a certain assignment is inappropriate for their child, the vast majority of schools have a mechanism to assign an alternative. However, that parent should not have the power to say that the other students can’t undertake the original assignment. If those parents don’t understand that in terms of community values, they should at least understand that the parents of the other students have the same right to direct their child’s education as they do. If a parent thinks that all/most of the assignments are inappropriate for their child, it’s time to either homeschool or send their child to a private or religious school that meets their needs.

With my daughters in their thirties and my grandchildren abroad, I admit that I am grateful to have been spared the personal pressures of education during the pandemic. There is a lot of ground to make up for students in the US. Let’s concentrate on that for the good of their future and our country.

SoCS: meetings

Earlier this year, I joined the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and was somewhat shocked but definitely honored to be offered a seat on their board.

I’ve never been on a board before, although I’ve been on lots of committees. Even though I don’t think being on committees is my strong suit, I did accept.

I haven’t had enough time to figure out yet if it was a mistake.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas to contribute. It’s more the incredible stress of trying to get them out.

I’m an introvert who finds talking to more than two people at a time really stressful. So a board meeting where I know almost no one is daunting. Add in being thrown into the midst of discussions that had been ongoing and for which I have limited background and the stress level goes up exponentially.

I am, however, determined and dogged and faithful, so I will try to do my best to contribute and be a good board member.

At least, for now.

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death. After the months of having to deal with all the paperwork and estate settling, I had been trying to re-prioritize my commitments. I thought that I would be doing mostly solitary activities, other than poetry workshopping. Well, and rehearsing with Madrigal Choir.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Besides Madrigal Choir Board, I’ve been involved with the Creation Care Team at my church, which has now also morphed into involvement with the diocesan creation care task force. Dealing with anything on the diocesan level is fraught for me for more complex reasons than I could possibly tackle in SoC.

For sanity’s sake, I know I should scale back, but will I?

Probably not.

Well, not at the moment, anyway…
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “board/bored.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/26/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-27-2022/

JC’s Confessions #24

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

JC

Over the many years of caregiving and volunteering I have done, people have often advised (admonished) me to “take care of myself.”

I don’t think it is something that I do very well.

I do try. I eat well (usually) and sleep (generally not so well, but not for lack of trying). I do my physical therapy exercises most days and speak with my counselor on a regular basis. (I love getting massages but the pandemic and other complications have interfered with what used to be a regular part of my self-care plan.)

I admit that the amount of stress, grief, and loss has been high for a lot of years. I would sometimes joke in recent years that it was too late for whatever stressor to give me gray hairs, although I notice that my eyebrows are beginning to turn silver and that my facial lines seem to be more indicative of sadness, unless I am actively smiling. (Or maybe this is straight-up aging, rather than stress-induced?)

(Hmmm…wonder if my extensive use of parentheses in this post is a form of denial, distancing, or hedging?)

But here’s the thing. When people want you to “take care of yourself,” the subtext is often to put yourself first, which is not my nature as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). I will always care about what people close to me are experiencing and try to do whatever is in my power (and sometimes attempt what is not really in my power) to help. I also feel compelled to serve my neighbors, whether near or far, which, given the state of the US and the world, is a huge task, but I try to shoulder my tiny sliver of it as best I can.

It’s a lot.

I can hear some people’s brains clicking with (totally valid) thoughts about boundaries and such…

And maybe I’ll manage that wisdom if I am gifted with enough years.

Or maybe I will always be “guilty” of prioritizing the needs of others before my own.

Or maybe that is just who I authentically am.

the aftermath of Dobbs

When I wrote this post after the leak of US Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft opinion on an abortion law in Mississippi, we weren’t sure if there would be changes before the decision was announced.

When the decision was announced on June 24, it was little changed from the draft. The majority signed on to the opinion that Roe v. Wade had been “wrongly decided” and threw the matter of the legality of abortion to each state’s legislature.

It’s not that long-standing Supreme Court precedents have never been overturned or declared “wrongly decided” – the Dred Scott decision springs to mind – but the Dobbs case was the first time that such a reversal came at the expense of a recognized right.

Many lawyers and Constitutional scholars have faulted the majority’s decision on historical and legal grounds, as Alito seems to cherry-pick sources in support of his view while ignoring the mainstream history and scholarship to the contrary. For example, while it is true that the Constitution does not specify a right to an abortion, it also never uses the word “woman” or “family.” There are many rights that have been recognized by the courts over the centuries that are not specifically cited in the Constitution under the Ninth Amendment which states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The right to privacy and to bodily autonomy belong to each person and should not be under the jurisdiction of the government at any level. The Alito opinion also seems to violate the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and the Fourteenth Amendment which promises “equal protection of the laws.”

While Alito said that abortion was a unique situation in terms of privacy protections, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that openly questions other rulings, such as those allowing contraception and marriage equality in all states. Somehow, he didn’t suggest that the Loving case, which forced all states to allow interracial marriage, had been wrongly decided, one assumes because he is a partner in one.

It’s now a little less than a month since the decision was handed down and there is upheaval. There have been many protests and public demonstrations. Some states moved to ban all abortions or all after six weeks of pregnancy. Some states are even trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care, as though being a resident of a state gave them ownership over you. While the House has passed legislation to codify abortion rights similarly to Roe and to allow interstate travel for medical care, the Senate Republicans have blocked both measures from coming to a vote.

Some states are protecting and codifying the Roe framework. My home state, New York, had done this previously and is now beginning the years-long process to amend the equal rights protections of the state constitution to include “sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy”. Bonus: this will protect marriage rights and stand against all gender-related discrimination, as well as returning reproductive health rights to each individual.

Before the decision was handed down, those of us warning of the dangers to the health and well-being of pregnant people were scolded for being alarmist, but we were being realistic. Every day, there are stories in the news of delayed care for miscarriages that threatens the health and life of the mother. There are stories of rape victims having to go to another state for an abortion. The most heart-breaking of these is the case of a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion at six and a half weeks pregnancy. This child has had to endure not only rape and the severe threat to her health that pregnancy at such a young age entails but also the trauma of some politicians and commentators questioning the veracity of her story.

These cases show the dangers of trying to legislate what should be private medical decisions. While some are contending that it’s not really an abortion if a child is pregnant and her life is endangered or if there is an ectopic pregnancy or if there is an incomplete miscarriage, medically speaking, all pregnancies end either in live birth or an abortion. Miscarriage is not a medical term; on medical records, it is termed a spontaneous abortion. Health care providers are being put in the impossible situation to provide the best care to their patients or to be forced by lawyers to wait until their patients are clearly dying themselves before intervening to remove a doomed fetus. When the federal government reminded hospital emergency rooms that they are required to treat any endangered pregnant person to save their life, the state of Texas filed suit, saying that their state law against abortion should take precedence.

Some states are making moves not only against abortion but also against contraceptives, even though these are not abortifacient. They are trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care. As I mentioned previously, while the US House of Representatives has passed legislation to codify abortion rights and to affirm the right to interstate travel, the Senate is not taking these up because of obstruction by Republicans. Chillingly, there is talk of the Republicans passing a national abortion ban if they regain the Congressional majority. Meanwhile, Republicans fail to pass legislation that would uphold the health and dignity of each person, such as universal health care, living wages, social welfare support, etc.

As a Catholic woman, I knew this was coming. Alito was parroting the arguments that Catholic bishops have made against abortion and Thomas went even further down that road in his calls against contraception. I have struggled for years against a church that denies my full personhood as a woman, despite their lip service to the concept of human dignity. I did not expect my country to follow suit.

Like most women my age, I didn’t think we would still be fighting these kinds of equality battles, but we will. I can’t predict the manner or timing of victory, but we will not be demoted to second class citizenship by a skewed Supreme Court.

One-Liner Wednesday: troublemaker or truth teller?

No, I’m not a troublemaker but I am a truth teller, and that can get you into a lot of trouble. But people deserve other people’s answers, other points of view, so they can assemble their own.

Joan Chittister, OSB

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/07/20/one-liner-wednesday-ah-the-oldies/

hearings

We arrived home from the UK just in time for the first primetime hearing of the findings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Since that hearing held on June 9th, there have been three more during the daytime with several more on the schedule.

Because I follow the news closely, I had thought that the hearings might not be very revelatory for me but I have found them to be very powerful. Part of the impact is that the testimony is all under oath. While some of the information had been revealed by investigative reporting or published in books by various participants, one was never quite sure of the veracity of claims. Knowing that witnesses are sworn to tell the truth makes it more likely that they are, given that committing perjury before Congress or a court can result in imprisonment. The vast majority of the 1000+ people who have been interviewed in the investigation came forward voluntarily without being compelled by subpoena, so they intended to tell what they had seen and heard for the good of the country. The committee also has access to hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, enabling it to stitch together a detailed timeline of the web of activities that led to the January 6th attack as well as what happened on that day and in the aftermath.

In the daytime hearings, a different member of the Committee has taken the lead in questioning, sometimes paired with a member of the staff. The staff includes experienced lawyers and investigators who have done the lion’s share of the work with witnesses and evidence.

At this point, the Committee is providing a preliminary review of its findings; a written report will be issued later in the year. They are doing a very comprehensive job of laying out evidence in an organized and cogent way. It probably helps that many of the committee members are themselves lawyers with courtroom experience. Their questioning of live witnesses is very straightforward so that each witness can tell their story without the distraction of political grandstanding. Most of the witnesses, whether appearing live or in recorded clips, are Republican officeholders, officials, or staff, so that it is clear that the Committee is not just interviewing critics of the Trump administration or engaging in hearsay. The Committee is putting forth actual evidence that you would expect to find in a court of law.

Chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, presides and does opening and closing statements at each hearing; Vice-chair Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, also does opening and closing statements each time. She has been particularly vocal in calling out Trump and the Republicans who assisted him in the lies about the 2020 election that led to the Capitol attack.

The testimony has revealed some previously undisclosed details. For example, in the hearing that centered on threats to then Vice-president Mike Pence, we learned that attackers got within forty feet of him as he was being evacuated, that he refused to leave the Capitol grounds, and that he was acting as commander-in-chief in calling in the National Guard as Trump refused to act.

It’s sobering and terrifying to see through this evidence how close our country came to an actual collapse of our democracy. If Pence and Republican members of Congress had delayed certification in violation of the Constitution, there would likely have been widespread violence in all regions of the country; Trump would have declared martial law and it would have been very difficult to recover our democracy. It’s also chilling to see the continuing impacts on our electoral process. A number of states have enacted provisions that make it easier to disenfranchise voters or ignore their legally cast ballots. Supporters of the lies about the 2020 election are winning elected office in some states, enabling them to interfere with government from within.

It’s very tense to be in the middle of all this, gaining all this knowledge but not knowing if/when there will be consequences for those who engaged in wrongdoing. We know the Justice Department is investigating but we don’t know if they will charge Trump, members of his administration and staff, and members of Congress with crimes pertaining to attempts to stage a coup. The Committee will make recommendations for legal reforms to the Electoral Count Act and other measures to try to avert another attempt to interfere with the certification of the election. These should be widely endorsed and enacted with large majorities of both parties but it remains to be seen if they will.

It scares me that so many current Republicans still cling to lies about the 2020 election and refuse to take responsibility for their activities that supported it. Even after the attack, eight senators and 139 representatives voted against acceptance of some of Biden’s electors, even though there was no factual basis to do so. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican who led a group on a long tour of the House office buildings the day before the attack though the entire Capitol complex was closed to visitors due to the pandemic, is denying he did anything wrong, even with evidence that a member of the tour group was part of the January 6 mob. There are dozens of members of Congress who should resign over their shameful disregard for their oath to uphold the Constitution but there is not even the possibility of Republican votes in favor of censure, much less removal from Congress.

I’m trying to remain hopeful that these hearings will break through the denial bubble that surrounds many Republican voters. After being the only major broadcast/news outlet to not air the initial primetime hearing, Fox News has begun to provide some coverage. I think that the powers that be at Fox News knew that the hearings would be important because during the primetime hearing, they did not take their usual commercials breaks so that their viewers wouldn’t be tempted to check in on the hearings. It’s also important to remember that Fox News, despite its name, is not really a news channel. While there are actual journalists who work for Fox News, they only have a few hours of airtime per week. The vast majority of their programming is classified as “entertainment” with pundits/personalities who are not constrained by any standards of truthfulness or propriety. The breath-taking amount of fear-mongering that Fox News and other right-wing outlets echoes and engenders the civic divide that Trump and the Republicans created and which threatens our democracy.

If Republicans watch the hearings, they will hear a number of familiar people and themes. Retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, one of the most revered conservative jurists, was featured in one hearing, speaking about the current dangers to our democracy. A number of the witnesses have spoken about the role of their faith in their actions. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers was particularly eloquent in this regard.

I have been moved by the real-world consequences for those who protected the integrity of the election and of the Capitol. Speaker Bowers’ account of the threats against him and his family, including harassment at his home as he and his wife attended to their terminally ill daughter. US Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards’ testimony on being injured on January 6th and still trying to aid her fellow officers in what amounted to hand-to-hand combat, not the policing work for which they had been trained. The appalling loss of any sense of safety or security for election workers Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, including even the ability to use their own names in public for fear of being attacked after being repeatedly vilified by Trump, Giuliani, and their followers.

I will continue to watch the hearings and the analysis and urge all the people of the United States to do the same. I hope that they will mark a turning point for the electorate so that we can root out all those who have failed in their oaths to uphold the Constitution before it is too late.

The hearings are showing us how close we came to disaster and how little time we have to strengthen our democratic institutions against attack.

One-Liner Wednesday: darkness

The future is dark. Is this the darkness of the tomb – or of the womb?

Valerie Kaur

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/06/15/one-liner-wednesday-one-of-those-days-3/

My 40th reunion at Smith

Last week, I attended my fortieth reunion at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. For those who may not be familiar, Smith is a women’s liberal arts college, chartered in 1871, one of the traditional Seven Sisters, five of whom remain as women’s colleges.

I came into town a day early in order to meet up with an alumna friend who lives in Northampton and graduated a year before me. Her sister was a member of my class and passed away in fall 2020. I was honored to be able to commemorate her at the Service of Remembrance during our reunion. My ’81 friend and I enjoyed hours of conversation on her front porch, followed by dinner on the porch at Mulino’s, an Italian restaurant that did not exist back in my student days.

I stayed at the historic Hotel Northampton, which has fun features like a mail slot near the elevators on each floor that connects to a large brass mailbox on the main floor for pick-up by the postal service every morning. I also got to do a bit of shopping at Thorne’s Marketplace, a collection of local shops and restaurants housed in a grand historic building. Thorne’s was a fairly new undertaking back in my undergrad days and I’m glad to see that it continues to thrive. I bought some cards and gifts and books and made two trips to Herrell’s ice cream shop. I got a sampler each time, so I got to enjoy eight – count ’em, eight! – of their delicious homemade flavors. This will surprise no one that knows me. I also got to have lunch at Fitzwilly’s, a restaurant/bar that was also relatively new during my student days. I had mac ‘n cheese that featured fresh asparagus from a farm in nearby Hadley. I love asparagus, which is one of the glories of spring in New England; it reminds me of going with my parents to harvest a patch near my father’s hydro station, a remnant of a garden from an old company-owned house that had been torn down.

On Thursday afternoon, I went up to campus for the duration of reunion. Because of the pandemic, everyone had to have proof of vaccination and boosting to register and many of the meals and events were held outdoors. Indoor events were masked, except while eating and drinking. I immediately met up with some of my ’82 friends and the celebration began!

One of the things about Smith reunions – and Smith alums in general – is that we somehow manage to have meaningful conversations with each other at the drop of a hat. Perhaps because of our shared liberal arts background, we are engaged with a broad range of topics across current affairs, public policy, arts and culture, and on and on. Of course, the deepest conversations happen with our close friends but there is a lot of sharing of ideas with acquaintances, too. In retrospect, I wish I had prepared a succinct answer to the question “What do you do?” Lacking a shorthand reply, like “I’m a lawyer, working for this government agency” or “I teach at such-and-such school”, I found myself stumbling to explain forty years of my life in any brief, comprehensible way.

Unlike the vast majority of my classmates, I’ve done little paid work in my life. I’ve devoted many years to being a caregiver of both elder and younger generations, with more than our share of medical issues. I’ve volunteered in church music and liturgical ministry and facilitated a spiritual book study group. During my daughters’ years in public school I served on curriculum committees and shared decision making teams and helped design the honors program at the high school. I joined NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, in 2000 to advocate for social justice. I was part of the anti-fracking movement in New York which finally achieved an administrative and later legislative ban in our state; this led to ongoing involvement in the fight for climate and environmental justice. There is my writing life, as a blogger and poet.

This does not condense into an easy answer to “What do you do?” but it does constitute the bulk of my adult life, which would not have been as rich and varied were it not for my Smith education. The ideal of a liberal arts education is that you “learn how to learn.” By studying across the spectrum of academic disciplines, one absorbs different approaches to real-life issues, enabling critically sound and creative solutions that promote well-being for ourselves and others and for our environment.

Maybe I should have replied, “Just forty years of being liberal-artsy.”

The other thing that I hadn’t quite prepared myself for was the flood of family memories. Because it was only an hour-ish drive to campus, my parents visited often for concerts and events. They were there for my recitals in Helen Hills Hills Chapel and John M. Greene Hall. They visited at Haven House where I lived all four of my years on campus. There were there, of course, at B and my wedding, a few weeks after commencement with the reception at the Alumnae House. This reunion was the first time since their deaths that I was back on campus and missing them added another layer to the strange mix of familiarity and difference that the passage of forty years brings. For example, I thought about my parents when we were attending the remembrance service, sitting in rows of chairs where the pews had once stood. The pews were removed years ago to allow for more flexible use of the space but their absence felt strangely current when I remembered B and my parents there in the front pews on either side for our wedding.

I also found myself missing my mother in particular among the spring flowers. We were blessed with unusually warm weather for mid-May and the flowers and trees were blooming simultaneously and profusely in response. The scent of the lilacs between the President’s House and the Quad, where we were staying, was so overwhelming I nearly choked. There were lily-of-the valley in bloom, which are Nana’s birth flower. What would have been her 90th birthday was the day after reunion and the third anniversary of her death is a few days from now.

I’m grateful to have been among friends who could support me with this grief aspect. Many of us have lost our parents now, with some still in the phase of dealing with their final years and indeterminate endpoint. As classmates, we were also dealing with the deaths of more of our ’82ers, adding to the list that, sadly, began during our senior year when we lost one classmate in a plane accident and a second to cancer. That’s why I and some friends always make a point to attend the service of remembrance during reunion. We want to honor our departed ones and their importance in our lives, even if they left us long ago. After the service, we visited the memorial tree planted beside the chapel in honor of our classmate Beth. We took a photo which we will send to her mother, who I know finds comfort that we remember her all these decades after her death.

While the central activity in reunion is visiting friends, there are plenty of other things to keep us busy. Some are long-standing traditions, such as Ivy Day when the alums, wearing white, parade between rows of the graduating seniors, also wearing white and carrying red roses, welcoming them into the community of alumnae. The night before commencement, the central campus is illuminated with Japanese lanterns. People stroll among them with live music in several locations.

There are also a number of lectures, receptions, and concerts. The President gave an update on the state of the college. Everyone is very excited that grants are replacing loans in financial aid packages at Smith, making an education possible without graduating in debt. Smith also highlights its accessibility for students who are the first generation in their family to attend college. That was my situation forty years ago but it was not recognized in the way it is today. I also attended two lectures of interest. One was how the Botanic Gardens are being re-imagined in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and best practices for preserving species in the face of climate change, all with an eye toward education and social/environmental justice. The other was about the transition of campus to ground-source heating and cooling, which will be a major contributor to Smith being carbon-neutral by 2030 without making extensive use of purchased off-sets. I was particularly interested in this because of the projects we have done at our home to reduce our carbon footprint and because my church is in the process of drawing up a strategic plan to reduce or eliminate our use of fossil fuels.

Besides college activities, we had a few opportunities just for our class. I alluded to one in this post – an open mic event to read something from our college years. I chose a passage from my adult psychology course journal about my experience coming from a tiny town to Smith. A few of us had brought something with us but we had time to do additional sharing which was fun. Our class theme for Reunion was “Writing Our Next Chapter” and I appreciated that our futures also came into that discussion.

We were also honored to have a preview screening of Where I Became, a documentary about South African students who came to Smith during apartheid. Our classmate Jane Dawson Shang is co-producer and shared some of her experiences making the film. When it becomes publicly available, I will surely share that information here at Top of JC’s Mind so everyone can see the remarkable story of these women.

Reunions at Smith are always exhilarating but exhausting. I had originally planned to attend commencement on Sunday morning but opted for quiet conversation with friends. Walking 17-20,ooo steps a day for three days straight in hot. humid weather proved to be a bit much for my feet and ankles, which swelled rather impressively.

It also meant that my reunion experience ended with what is always most important, sharing with friends in a place that was instrumental to our lives. I hope to see some of them and return to campus before our next reunion.

Five years seems too long to wait.

a fraught and complicated topic

Anyone in the US can probably guess from the title that this post is about abortion, which is all over the news right now, due to the publication of a first draft of an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito which would overturn the Supreme Court rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ending the right to obtain a pre-viability abortion throughout the US after 49 years. If the final ruling follows this draft, each state would be free to adopt its own laws regarding abortion. While some states have already codified abortion laws in line with the Roe framework, other states have laws that would greatly restrict or totally ban abortion if Roe is struck down.

It’s been a political earthquake. It’s also being cast as yet another liberal versus conservative, blue versus red, pro-choice versus pro-life issue, but it is much more complicated than that.

Years ago, I started to draft a post called “shades of gray in a black-and-white world” that would have dealt with abortion as an example. I don’t tend to be an either/or person; everything to me is a complex web of concerns with many different aspects and perspectives to take into account. (You can blame my INFJ-ness or just Joanne being Joanne.) I’ll try to make myself as clear as I can in this post but my greater goal is to explore the varied factors that come into play.

At its root, I don’t think any branch of government should be dictating what a person who is pregnant does before the baby can survive on its own. I think that is a private medical and moral decision that belongs to the mother, her partner if they are available in a supportive way, her medical practitioner, and any advisors who can help.

I am Catholic and know that the Church currently teaches that life begins at conception but I think that is a problematic definition. Most fertilized eggs don’t implant in the uterus and it seems foolish to define all those as miscarriages. It’s tragic when an embryo implants elsewhere; if you have defined life as beginning at conception and prohibit all abortion, then an ectopic pregnancy couldn’t be treated until the embryo has died, by which point there will probably be life-threatening internal bleeding in the mother’s abdomen. Defining fertilized eggs as persons also gets problematic with frozen embryos used for assisted fertility treatment. I would certainly not be considered alive if I were placed in liquid nitrogen! (The Catholic Church opposes most fertility treatments, including in vitro fertilization, but it is germane because, of course, frozen embryos exist.) Other faiths believe personhood begins at different junctures, with many Muslims believing in ensoulment at 120 days after conception and many Jews marking birth as the beginning of full personhood. Because there is no consensus on when life begins among people, the government is overstepping its bounds to impose one.

The vast majority, about 92%, of abortions in the US are performed within the first 13 weeks gestation, or 15 weeks of pregnancy because weeks of pregnancy are, for some stupid reason, still counted from the date of the late menstrual period meaning you are considered two weeks pregnant at the time of conception. One of the very confusing things with laws in various states is referring to abortion bans at six weeks or fifteen weeks. It’s often referring to weeks of pregnancy, so we need to bear in mind that the gestational age is two weeks younger. 44% of abortion in 2019 were medical, using pills to cause a miscarriage early in the pregnancy, rather than surgical. Medical abortion can be used up to the tenth week of gestation.

Only 4% occur after 16 weeks gestation. These are most often done because of grave medical problems with either the mother or fetus. Sometimes, second trimester abortions are performed because of barriers of distance and/or cost to reach a provider. Rural women and people with low income/wealth often have this barrier, as do people without medical insurance or who have Medicaid because federal funds cannot be used for abortions.

The largest factor in choosing to have an abortion appears to be economic. 49% of people seeking abortion are living below the poverty level, with an additional 26% up to twice the poverty level. 60% already have at least one child. Unlike most modern democracies, the United States is not very supportive of families and children. I wonder how many would choose to raise the child rather than have an abortion if the US offered free or low-cost medical care, paid parental leave, guarantees of a living wage and/or subsidies for food, housing, day care/preschool, etc. that people in much of Europe have available to them.

Even the favorite alternative of those who oppose abortion, carrying the child to term and placing it for adoption, is expensive. If the mother is struggling financially and has other children to care for, she is literally faced with a choice between impending medical bills for delivering the new baby and feeding, clothing, and housing her present family. Abortion may be her most practical route to keeping her family afloat.

This brings me to one of the most troubling aspects of prohibiting abortion – forced childbearing. Carrying a child against one’s will is, to my mind, a form of involuntary servitude. I know from my own experiences with pregnancy that bearing a child is work which is physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. With my first pregnancy, which was planned and hoped for, I still experienced a lot of emotional upheaval, especially in the first trimester. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had been without a partner, uninsured, living in poverty, unhealthy, in an abusive relationship, or a victim of sexual violence. Yet, some of the state laws restricting abortion carry no exceptions for rape and incest. Forcing a woman to bear a child that results from sexual violence or coercion magnifies the trauma. It’s especially dangerous if a tween or teen is involved.

Despite some progress, mothers in the United States bear a disproportionate amount of the labor and consequences of raising children. This is especially true if they are single parents. The poverty rate for single mothers is high. Often, the father doesn’t contribute substantially to the household finances. Many women who are unexpectedly pregnant face the loss of schooling, employment, and family support. It’s not just whether or not to have a baby or an abortion; it’s looking at 18+ years of raising a child without adequate support from the father, family, and community. While the stigma of single parenthood has lessened somewhat in my lifetime, it is still there, especially within certain religious communities. There is also still significant employment discrimination against women, in particular during pregnancy. Rolling back reproductive rights will likely worsen this.

While the leaked draft tries to say that the overturning of Roe v. Wade does not have legal implications beyond abortion, it’s unlikely that other private matters won’t be affected. The most obvious is access to contraception. It wasn’t until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled that married couples must be allowed access to contraceptives and 1972 that any person could access them. I feel the right to use contraceptives is under particular threat because of the way the Catholic Church teaches about them and the fact that six of the current justices are Catholic, with an additional one who was raised Catholic. Only one of those seven is not in the conservative camp.

As a Catholic woman, I have been told that taking birth control pills is like having an abortion every month, ditto for morning after pills and IUDs. The fact that this is total garbage from a medical standpoint is apparently irrelevant to the Church. The Church also opposes surgical sterilization for males and females and privileges the life of the unborn over the mother. I, like millions of other Catholics, reject this teaching and follow my own conscience on these matters personally. I am fortunate that I never had to face a personal decision on abortion during my child-bearing years, but I do know that if I had had an ectopic pregnancy, I would not have hesitated to have surgery to save my life. I also probably would have had an abortion if we discovered that I was carrying a child who had problems that were “incompatible with life” as it is euphemistically termed. I don’t think I could have chosen to put myself and my child through the pain and trauma of birth, knowing that they would die soon after.

Other people might make other choices but that is the whole point. Each individual chooses what is right for them, within the realm of medical science and individual conscience. The government is not the entity doing the choosing.

Besides birth control, there are other issues that are considered privacy issues. Many people are concerned about the impact on marriage. The 2015 Obergefell case that established marriage equality throughout the US could be in danger. Some worry that even the 1967 Loving case that prohibited states from racial discrimination in granting marriage licenses could be at risk. Another ruling that could be in jeopardy is 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the remaining state laws that prohibited same-sex relations.

By chance, I had had an opportunity to discuss a possible overturn of Roe v. Wade not too long before the leaked opinion draft. I sometimes do online surveys and had been invited by one of these polling organizations to participate in an online focus group about abortion. I admit that I was a bit of leery about it beforehand, but it was very interesting. Most of the group thought that Roe v. Wade was likely to be overturned soon, while I and a few others thought it would be a longer process. I had thought that the present case would uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban, changing the timeframe of Roe without going so far as to say it was wrongly decided. I suppose this is still possible if Alito’s draft opinion didn’t draw the support of four other justices, though I feel that is unlikely at this point. In the focus group, we did view some short promotional videos that a client organization might use in the event of tightened abortion restrictions. I expect to see some of them debut after the Court formally announces its decision in June or early July.

There are already lots of marches and demonstrations going on and I expect more. There might be repercussions for the midterm elections in November but with the level of gerrymandering and voter suppression in the country already, it’s difficult to predict the outcome.

I also don’t know what reforms are possible. One of the reasons this ruling is possible is that the Republicans have interfered with the seating of federal judges and justices. Two of the justices likely voting in favor of this overturning of Roe were appointed by Donald Trump but those seats would have been made by Democratic presidents if the Senate confirmation process had not been co-opted by Senator Mitch McConnell. A few weeks before the 2020 election, I wrote a post about one possible approach to addressing this. And all of this is complicated by the structure of the US government that gives disproportionate power to less populous states through the Senate and the electoral college.

Thank you to any of you who have made it this far in a longer-than-usual post. I do not know what the coming weeks will bring with this latest addition to political tensions in the US. It’s hard to keep my fears in check.

Please, stay safe.

Covid red again

Like many places around the world, COVID cases are rising here in Broome County, New York (USA), so much so that we are once again in the highest risk category from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Technically, the high risk category is now orange, not red, but I used red in the title of this post because it seems to be yet another “code red” to me.

Broome County is in one of the red zones with the Covid Act Now site that I use regularly. Our current rating is “very high,” the fourth of five levels. Our seven day average is 50.2 daily cases per 100,000 residents. This figure is likely an undercount, as not all people who test positive with a home test are contacting the health department or a medical professional to report the case or seek advice and treatment. UPDATE 4/19/22: The Covid Act Now site is now using the (much less useful) CDC rating system. Fortunately, the more granular data by neighborhood is still available, as are statistics like percentage of population with booster shots.

There are a number of factors involved in the current rise in cases. Our vaccinated and boosted rate is only 35.5% so we have many vulnerable people. (While it’s true that boosted people are still vulnerable to infection, they are much less likely to fall seriously ill with COVID.) It is also likely that we have cases of two new omicron subvariants that have recently emerged in central New York. While information is still being gathered, these may be even more wildly contagious than the previous versions of omicron.

You would think that our government officials would be re-instituting indoor mask mandates, but they have yet to do so. This is what I feared would happen. When the mandates were lifted, politicians and public health experts said they were doing it to give people a break while cases were relatively low so that they could bring mandates back if we had another surge, but only a few jurisdictions, like the city of Philadelphia, are actually following through.

Instead, government officials are relying on individuals to make their own decisions. The problem is that the majority of people in the US are not seeking out credible information about the risks in their localities. As a participant in the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine trial, I have been following the science closely. Discussions with my personal medical team have reinforced the wisdom of trying to avoid or, at least, continue to postpone infection. Nearly all the public health goals at this point are aimed at reducing serious infection, hospitalization, and mortality, but I also want to avoid illness, infecting others, experiencing long-COVID, and developing complications. I had continued to wear a KF94 mask in public and avoid crowds as much as possible, including singing masked for this performance and this video. With our current infection levels, we will most likely return to take-out dining only.

I did attend Easter Vigil last night, as I knew that it would not be very crowded, unlike the services today. I was masked but the majority of attendees were not. I admit that I cringed when I heard some very loud coughing jags near the back of the church. I was sitting near the front, so I was very far away from them, but I realize that many people are infected without knowingly being in close contact.

The ease of the spread of COVID was brought home to us over the last couple of weeks. B had gone into the office for the first time in over two years because they were having a new product launch. There was only a fraction of the workforce there, all of whom were vaxxed and boosted. Despite that, B got a message three days later that a co-worker with whom he had been conversing had developed symptoms and tested positive. B immediately masked at home and kept his distance from T and I. He did not go out in public and did self-testing. I am happy to report that we are now over ten days from his exposure with no symptoms or positive test, so he is in the clear, but the story illustrates how easily one can be exposed and risk unwittingly infecting others.

I’m not sure what additional actions I may need to take for my and my family’s protection. If the numbers stay this high, I may forgo attending mass in person and return to televised or recorded services until the numbers are better. I will probably try to speak to the local researchers in charge of the Pfizer vaccine trial to see if they are planning to offer a fourth shot to those fifty and older. The CDC has opened the option for our age group to receive a fourth dose but we need to follow the study protocols to remain enrolled in the study which is still ongoing with weekly symptom checks and periodic blood draws to check antibody levels, etc. B and daughter T received their third dose last July, while I received mine in October. We are all well beyond the four-month interval to be eligible for a fourth shot, although T is not old enough to qualify. At this point, we probably have decent protection against hospitalization but not not much against infection. It’s hard to say for sure, though, because B and T are part of the data set on which such findings are based. (I’m a bit behind them because I was part of the placebo group in the initial phase of the study, so I was vaccinated and boosted later than they were.)

I am hoping that this wave in the Northeast will pass quickly. I always hope for surges to pass quickly to reduce suffering but I have an additional personal reason this time. I am scheduled to attend my 40th reunion at Smith College beginning on May 12th. It’s the first time since 2019 the event will be held in person. It’s planned in a cautious way, with all participants required to be vaxxed and boosted, many events being held outdoors, and indoor masking requirements in place except while eating or drinking. Even with a surge, we should be okay to go ahead but it will be less stressful if the surge has passed by then.

So, once again, fingers crossed. I’m doing what I can to keep myself, my family, and my community safe. I urge all of you to stay informed from credible sources in your area and take whatever steps you can with vaccination, masks, testing, medications, etc. to get the virus levels down and protect public health and your own.

We know what can happen if we don’t pay attention and act. The United States is closing in on a million known COVID-19 deaths. It’s already a stunning level of tragedy here and around the world. Please do all you can.

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