In 2006 Justice Scalia said that there has not been “a single case–not one–in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.” The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution  begins and ends with that quote, driving home the enormity of Carlos DeLuna’s wrongful execution in 1989. The mistakes in that case were so egregious and wide-ranging that there should have been some kind of red flag, some sort of review. Instead, DeLuna was fast-tracked to execution.

Scalia apparently thinks there are zero innocent people on Death Row. Current studies suggest that the real number is actually slightly above four percent. The Wrong Carlos shows that innocent people can be sentenced to death and executed even when severe mitigating factors are present. As obvious as DeLuna’s case was, if it wasn’t caught, how many more subtle innocence cases are out there?

Wanda Lopez was murdered in February 1983. Law enforcement response was flawed from the beginning. Lopez was stabbed to death around 8 p.m. at the gas station where she worked, which was located in a bad neighborhood. She called 911 twice about a man in the gas station with a knife and was interrogated and brushed off both times. The dispatcher only sent police and an ambulance when she began to scream at the end of the second call.

Cross-racial eyewitness misidentification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. The primary eyewitness was an Anglo man. His initial description had been of a Hispanic man wearing jeans and a flannel shirt who had run out of the gas station and threatened to shoot him. The suspect the police brought back to the scene was a Hispanic man wearing a white dress shirt and dark trousers who carried no weapon.

All four witnesses had been kept at the scene during the manhunt, huddled together watching the EMTs fail to save Wanda Lopez’s life. Forty minutes later the police brought back a suspect and informed the witnesses that they had found him hiding underneath a car. In case you were wondering, that’s called prejudicing a witness, and it is not allowed. The primary witness later said that although he was not one hundred percent certain that the man in police custody — Carlos DeLuna — was the same man he had seen running out of the gas station, he felt an immense pressure to identify him then and there.

The detectives in charge of the crime scene did a cursory investigation. Potential evidence like a cigarette butt, chewed gum, and beer cans that one witness had described the killer drinking before the murder were left to get cleaned up by the gas station manager less than two hours after the murder occurred. The forensics officer was not very good at his job — he found zero usable fingerprints on a counter that customers would have been touching all day, and covered the handle of the murder weapon in ineffective fingerprint dust, which rendered it unusable for more sophisticated methods.

None of the blood spatters were sampled and tested though the extensive spray made it seem like Lopez had fought back. There was also at least one bloody footprint of a shoe that did not match her sandals. Tellingly, there were no traces of blood on DeLuna or his clothing. There had been about an eighth of an inch of rain Corpus Christi that morning. The prosecutor later argued that even though the murder had happened at 8 p.m., there was still enough water left on the ground to fully cleanse DeLuna’s clothes of blood.

The trial was a mess unto itself. DeLuna’s first court-appointed lawyer was the son of a local judge, a general practitioner with a small private practice and money problems, who had never done criminal defense before. After about two months the attorney realized he had no idea what he was doing and requested assistance. DeLuna’s second court-appointed lawyer was an experienced defense attorney with an absolutely overwhelming case load. Though he had been appointed two months prior, he first met DeLuna a month before the trial started. Both attorneys failed him. They neglected to interview key witnesses for the prosecution. They were unable to do their own investigation into the murder. They failed to follow up with a psych evaluation that designated DeLuna as borderline mentally retarded, and did not bring that up at trial or for sentencing mitigation.

Worst of all, DeLuna claimed to know the man who had actually committed the crime. Eventually he told his attorneys the man’s name — though it took some persuading, because DeLuna was afraid of this man. His attorneys did no research into the existence of the other man, and the prosecution took that and ran with it, referencing “the phantom Carlos Hernandez” during trial.

Of course, Carlos Hernandez did exist. He was known by the police in Corpus Christi as being a tremendously dangerous person. He notoriously carried a knife of the same type found at the murder scene. He wore jeans and flannel shirts. He held up convenience stores and attacked Hispanic women. He murdered a woman in 1979 and bragged about getting away with it, as he later did with the murder of Wanda Lopez. A neighbor once heard him boasting about the Lopez murder – and that his tocayo, his namesake, had taken the fall for it.

In retrospect, there is absolutely no doubt that Carlos DeLuna was not the murderer of Wanda Lopez. If anyone had bothered to do a modicum of their actual jobs at the time, there would have been little doubt in 1983. But no one did, so “the phantom Carlos Hernandez” stood as fact.

DeLuna’s court-appointed attorneys were incompetent, and so were the attorneys in charge of his appeals. One tried to make a case for racial prejudice, despite the fact that both Lopez and DeLuna were Hispanic. Another tried to make a claim of ineffective counsel without mentioning Carlos Hernandez – who was at that very moment under investigation for the 1979 murder. Only the final attorney went into the mitigating factor of DeLuna’s mental retardation, and his was a case of too little, too late. By the time he had gathered the requisite evidence, it was past the time period where appellate attorneys are allowed to provide new evidence, and DeLuna’s stay of execution was denied.

DeLuna was only on Death Row for six years. This was highly unusual. Even in Texas, which holds the number one spot for number of executions, the average time on Death Row is 10.6 years. the journalist who covered DeLuna’s case from the beginning had also covered many other Death Row cases, and remembered it being “unbelievably swift,” “rushed through,” and “unheard-of.”

The judicial system had failed DeLuna in a number of very obvious ways, and yet he was sped through Death Row on his way to execution. This is one of the cases where you’d expect someone to catch something. From an outsider’s perspective, nearly everything seems off. There are many more egregious details in the book — there isn’t room in a single blog post for all the mistakes. The pre-trial psychologist was a pedophile. There are suggestions that Hernandez was a police informant. An attorney for the prosecution checked out all the evidence after the trial and never returned it. The prosecutors claimed that DeLuna had robbed Lopez before murdering her, but there wasn’t any money missing from the till. On and on and on. The system is intended to catch things like these. Somehow, it did not. Somehow, it does not.

Approximately four percent of people on Death Row are innocent. What that statistic ignores is that one hundred percent are subject to to dehumanization and a form of state-sponsored murder that is getting increasingly brutal and horrifying. In April of this year it took Oklahoma’s Clayton Lockett 45 minutes to die. This is getting more common because the drugs we were using are no longer being manufactured, but it has been the case all along that sometimes the drugs fail. During his execution, DeLuna’s anaesthetic failed. He more than likely felt himself suffocating during the paralytic, felt the burn in his veins of the poison that eventually stopped his heart. DeLuna was tortured to death.

And that is where it doesn’t matter that he was innocent. It makes it more tragic – his childlike trust in the prison chaplain who promised him it wouldn’t hurt, and that betrayal. His innocence does not matter, because even the most heinously guilty people do not deserve to be tortured to death. DeLuna’s case exhibits two separate threads of the same question: Can we trust the government to kill people? Can we trust the government to kill people humanely, and can we trust the government to not kill innocent people? DeLuna shows that in both cases, the answer is “No.”


Last April, two men in Tulsa, Oklahoma were arrested for driving into the city’s black neighborhood and shooting indiscriminately at pedestrians, wounding two and killing three. One or two news articles mentioned that this was especially distressing to North Tulsa residents in light of the race riot of 1921. None elaborated further.

The race riots that linger in American (white) cultural memory are largely those directed by and focused inside the black community: LA, Detroit, Watts. Less so are those instigated by white aggressors like East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago et al in the “Red Summer” of 1919. I had never heard of Tulsa, 1921. According to James Hirsch’s Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy, many white Tulsans would have preferred things to stay that way.

The Tulsa race war of 1921 was the targeted destruction of Greenwood, the city’s black neighborhood. Because of the decades-long culture of silence that surrounded the event, much of the history regarding Tulsa’s race war is disputed. All agree it began on Memorial Day, 1921, with the arrest of a young black man for allegedly assaulting a young white woman. Like many of these accusations, the alleged assault almost certainly did not occur. Though the young man was indeed arrested, it was clear through their subsequent actions that even the authorities felt the woman’s claim had little merit. Nevertheless, they decided to hold him overnight.

This worried Tulsa’s black community. In August of 1920 a white man was arrested for a widely-sensationalized attempted murder during a car-jacking. After his victim died in the hospital, a mob overran the courthouse, pulled him from his cell, and lynched him. The authorities hadn’t been able protect the white inmate in their care. How could they be expected to protect this young black man, with the added allegation of black-on-white sexual violence hanging over his head? And when the Tulsa Tribune published a scurrilous editorial about the allegation on the afternoon of his arrest, tensions ran even higher.

The evening of May 31st, a group of armed black men marched from Greenwood to the courthouse, intent on preventing a lynching. The sheriff promised them that no such thing would happen that night. They were hardly satisfied, but acquiesced and returned home. By that point, however, it was too late. Hearing that black men had come into the white part of the city with guns, Tulsa’s white population armed itself. The situation quickly escalated. Knowing that the white men had picked up arms, and fearing for the young man’s life, Greenwood’s men returned to the courthouse. There was a standoff. A white man tried to wrest a gun from the grip of a black man. Someone fired a shot. It was a little after ten pm.

The violence began in front of the courthouse, but it chased the fleeing black men back into Greenwood. By the time the National Guard was deployed the next day, around late morning, the black neighborhood was little more than a smoldering ruin. Greenwood had been home to a small but thriving black middle class. The amount of damage that had been done was estimated to be as much as $1.8 million – over $22 million today. Houses, churches, and the nation’s largest black hotel were looted and burned to the ground. The aggressors attacked with machine guns as well as small arms. Airplanes flew over the burning neighborhood, though their purpose was murky: dropping incendiaries? Or, as later white revisionists would have it, “sav[ing] blacks”? In either case, many of Greenwood’s residents were shot and lay injured on the ground, prevented from receiving medical attention. Estimates of the dead range from the “official” count of 38 to over 300.

White Tulsans gleefully chased some black people out of town; others, they rounded up and deposited into refugee camps. Here I quote directly from Hirsch: “Under General Barett [of the National Guard], blacks became wards of the state. Leaving the fairgrounds, they had to wear a green tag that included the individual’s name and address, and employer’s signature, and the words POLICE PROTECTION. Any African-American without proper identification would be arrested and returned to custody. All 7,500 tags were issued by June 7. They were, to blacks, another sign of subjugation, but whites saw them as long overdue.” Those who did not have employment were forced to clean up the ruins of Greenwood for 25 cents a day.

There were many underlying reasons for the destruction of Greenwood: morality crusaders, uneasy about white familiarity with its “sin district”; oil tycoons, who afterwards tried to turn the ruined neighborhood into an industrial park; poor whites, resentful of the wealth of those like J.B. Stradford, who lost as much as $125,000 ($1.5 million today) and fled Oklahoma when charged with “inciting a riot” (a crime which, if convicted, would have led to life imprisonment or death – if he avoided being lynched before trial). But in the end it did nothing so much as create an atmosphere of terror among Oklahoma’s black community – as did the East St. Louis riots in 1917, the Red Summer of 1919, and the thousands of lynchings across the United States from the 1890s to the mid-20th century.

One thing that stood out to me in Hirsch’s account were the responses of white Oklahomans to the call for reparations that came in the late 90s and early 2000s. It was unpopular, to say the least; in a 1999 poll 12 percent of respondents approved of tax dollars being spent on reparations, and “26 percent supported reparations if no tax dollars were used. Almost three out of four opposed private individuals using their own money to compensate black riot survivors.” Even more significant was the commentary: “[Congressman Kevin Calvey] noted in a radio interview that blacks commit a disproportionate number of crimes in America. ‘Why don’t we hold black Americans liable to white Americans for reparations for that?’ Like riot reparations, he said, it would be wrong.” And, some asked, what about reparations to the families of the white men killed in the conflict?

Setting aside the responsibility of the white supremacist power structure in black crime (as African-Americans are also disproportionately poor), and the fact that most crime is intra-race, there is a deeper issue here. White America has for generations perpetrated terrorism on its black citizens. The Tulsa race war and other similar events were no less than pogroms meant to destabilize the African-American community, to punish the “uppity,” and to reiterate white supremacy. The call for reparations isn’t about “the transfer of wealth,” as The Daily Oklahoman suggested, and it isn’t about “greed.” It would be an unspoken acknowledgement of what white America did and continues to do to the black community.

In a public hearing about riot reparations in 2001, “… a black woman from Tulsa stood in the back of the room and yelled out: ‘I was born in 1955 and I consider myself a survivor [of the riot] because of the damage done in 1921. If you drive through North Tulsa today, you’ll see we are still being affected.’” The destruction of Greenwood is just one aspect of the destabilization of the black community that still happens today. White America ignores that such atrocities occurred and in so doing denies its victims the catharsis that acknowledgement and apologies would provide.

I spend more time on the internet than I generally should. A topic for another post altogether, but one of the consequences of being constantly plugged-in is that you read a lot of things that you are not particularly interested in, or even interested in learning about, solely to fill the insatiable need for that blog-reading brain-tickling “intellectual” stimulation. One of these things, for me, is sports. Websites like Grantland and Deadspin are erudite enough to be interesting to the layman, and so I read them occasionally; Ta-Nehisi Coates, of the Atlantic, writes a hell of a race-polemic, but has also written, in the wake of all of these studies on the dangers of football, a series of blog posts about the responsibility of sports fans.

I view football from an outsider’s perspective, but I admit to having a stake in this conversation: as a hockey fan, after the death of Derek Boogaard last fall, and the suicides of two other enforcers around the same time, I am in a similar place as Coates. Is it right to watch these sports, to revel in the atavistic violence, knowing that it’s likely that you’re cheering on another injury that will build up in their brain into the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that’s been coming up in sports news for the past several years?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by years of repeated head injuries. Its symptoms include dementia, confusion, aggression, depression, and related co-morbidities such as drug abuse and suicide. When the media first started talking about the dangers of football several years ago – I’m thinking particularly this article in Time from January 2010 – they focused primarily on full concussions. Unfortunately, since then the research has suggested that concussions are only half the problem: repeated head injuries of any level of severity are enough.

A lot of pixels have been spilled talking about the statistical significance of these findings, about whether we should do anything and what that ‘anything’ would be. Bill Barnwell over at Grantland just published a statistical comparison of football and baseball players from 1959 to 1988, showing that baseball players died at higher rates; Greg Matthews at Deadspin offered a riposte by controlling for age, and concluded that the difference in mortality rates were statistically insignificant.

But here’s the thing that these and a lot of other analyses have been missing: the labor rights perspective. Sports are great, sports are fun, they’re fun to play and it’s nice to be good at them – but to professional football players, this is their job. This is the thing that they are paid to do, to entertain the rest of us. Is it fair to expect them to shave off a good potential twenty-plus years of life for the sake of their job?

There are a few ways to think about this. The more intersectional sociological way of thinking marks a difference between hockey and football, absolving my own complicity as a sports-fan, so we’ll talk about that one first: race and class exploitation. Hockey in a lot of ways presupposes a middle-class upbringing, especially given the expense of the equipment and ice-rink practice time. It is also predominantly white. Football, though, especially in its youth-based incarnations, does not require as much monetary investment. It is more easily accessed by the underprivileged. It enticingly waves a ticket out of poverty, wrapped up as it is in the racist narrative of African-American success. The narrative says, even now, that the only way out of the ghetto for young black men is through sports or entertainment. Already this is inherently exploitative, a production of the white supremacist gaze: entertain us, and we’ll reward you. When we tie in our growing knowledge of the dangers of football, it becomes gladiatorial.

But racist exploitation aside, there’s still plenty for a leftist to criticize. White or black, underclass or middle-class, in this day and age it’s reasonable to assume that your job is probably not going to kill you. That’s why we have OSHA, it’s why we have safety regulations in mining and manufacturing, it’s why we have (largely-ignored) laws about breaks for service-industry workers and why, in many white-collar office environments, standing desks are coming into vogue after some breathy hysterical reports about how sitting all day, day after day, is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes. The larger organizations, NFL and NHL and NCAA et al, need to take some responsibility.

If CTE is a systemic problem, and it’s looking more likely that it is, something needs to be done on that level. Sports fans can’t solve the problem. Many don’t want to – violence is an inherent part of the game, a modern-day analogue for tribal warfare. How many times have I sat in front of hockey play-off games, shouting “Punch him! PUNCH HIM!”? (Answer: a bunch.) And the players themselves won’t do it, not just because this is their job, but also because of the perks of money and fame offered to – let’s be fair – teenagers and men barely out of their teens. Neither the running-back from Compton nor the enforcer from Toronto suburbia is going to turn down the money and accolades offered to them straight out of high school or college because there is a chance that they’ll acquire the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in their 40s. Not after spending most of their young lives training for this moment, creating an identity for themselves that revolves solely around athletic prowess, not after the community praise and cultural expectations. Expecting players to make that choice for themselves is short-sighted and naïve. The only way to handle this situation is top-down. The market ain’t gonna do it.

I don’t have a solution to the problem. I don’t know what the NFL or NHL can do. I don’t know if there’s a way to keep these sports recognizable while mitigating the chance of brain damage. But we owe professional athletes the same consideration that other workers get. It is reprehensible to use these people for our entertainment and then discard them when they’re done. Your job should not be the cause of your death, even decades later.

Terry Pratchett’s Watch books are set in and around Ankh-Morpork, a city-state ruled by a benevolent tyrant in Pratchett’s fantasy universe Discworld. The series primarily documents the rise of its protagonist, Sam Vimes, from drunk and disreputable Captain of the misfit Night Watch to His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork, Commander of the City Watch, diplomat and public figure. As Vimes slowly gains legitimacy and ascends the social ladder, his rise is echoed by the modernization of Ankh-Morpork and the opening of society to the city’s marginalized populations. Several of the novels are outright narratives of a population’s quest for legitimacy and personhood, usually, like Vimes’s own, through the vehicle of the Watch.

In a universe populated by fantasy creatures, the question “What is human?” (or, for clarity, “What makes a person?”) can be uncomfortably literal at times for the characters who feel the need to ask that question of themselves. Pratchett’s most effective explorations of this question come from the interior struggles of the characters who exist in the liminal state between Human and Not Human. Angua is a Captain of the City Watch and a werewolf. She pays for the livestock she kills during the full moon, and struggles to keep a firm grip on her bloodthirsty instincts at all times. Her brother Wolfgang does not. He kills with impunity both animals and people and takes an atavistic pride in his brute strength and bestial nature. When informed of Wolfgang’s death in The Fifth Elephant, Angua asks Vimes if he killed him. “No,” Vimes responds, “I put him down.” The orc working in the wizard’s university denies his species’ dark past and his own threatening physicality in favor of a fascination with people and football (or soccer, for us Yanks). Even Vimes is not exempt from such introspection. The Beast, a defense mechanism of mindless strength and savagery, struggles to take control in times of stress and outrage, and Vimes must fight it back. The implication of all this is clear: to be human is to have the choice between mindlessness and thought, and the decision to choose consciousness and empathy. It is immoral to choose mindlessness if you have the choice, and it is likewise immoral to deny others that choice, since in doing so one turns one’s back on empathy.

Pratchett’s exploration of individual personhood and humanity can be extrapolated to apply more broadly to the denizens of Ankh-Morpork and to modernity itself. Humanity and society are mutually inclusive, after all, and so to a certain extent choosing to be a person is choosing to be a part of modern society. Although he presents tradition and conservatism as absurdities, Pratchett also implies that they are as dangerous to an inclusive society as one’s animalistic nature is to one’s humanity. Keeping a menagerie of elderly hippos and owls to paint heraldry from life is ridiculous; taking advantage of the city’s latent monarchist sympathies to overthrow the legitimate government and install an ineffective puppet king (or worse – a dragon king) is dangerous. Tradition, like bestial mindlessness, is easy. It keeps animosities alive for millennia, and blinds its adherents to the evidence that ancient enmities are irrelevant now and had been a mistake all long. It allows us to sail comfortably through life knowing good from evil, person from nonperson, without thought or change. Thinking that one intrinsically knows person from nonperson does not allow for equal treatment or for the individual expression of “nonpersons” in society. In the eyes of the traditional dwarf leaders, Corporal Cheery Littlebottom is not a real dwarf, because she openly identifies as female. In the opinion of the Ankh-Morpork priesthood, Constable Dorfl is not a person, he’s a golem: created from clay by man, not even technically alive. Progress comes in the form of allowing all conscious beings the autonomy to choose to be themselves.

On the flip side of this, once traditional blocks to personhood and social inclusion have been removed, it is the responsibility of the formerly-marginalized individuals to choose to enter society. This is why the City Watch is so crucial to the rise of Ankh-Morpork’s marginalized populations, why in Snuff Vimes muses, “It had become a tradition: if you could make it as a copper, you could make it as a species.” The civic involvement of being a member of the City Watch provides the fastest way to become part of society, and the nature and history of the Watch as an entity welcoming to misfits makes it the perfect place to start. It also presents a microcosm of how the benefits of an inclusive society outweigh the negatives. Returning to Captain Angua’s situation, it is easy to see how having a werewolf on the force would be beneficial, despite the uneasiness of her colleagues: an intelligent officer and K-9 unit in one. Each new species joining the Watch provides a different perspective. It also allows for each individual to express themselves on their own level, which then provides the larger society to see members of these groups as individuals instead of representatives of their respective populations. Forensic officer, alchemist, and out female Cheery Littlebottom may have retained her beard and helmet, but presents an aspect of dwarfdom totally opposed to the exclusively-male gold-axes-and-beer stereotype, thus paving the way for Unseen Academical‘s Madame Sharn (a dwarf) and her couture chainmail gowns for ladies of all species.

This emphasis on treating everyone equally, allowing people their individual expression, extends to class distinctions, as well. Sam Vimes, as reluctant nobility, still adheres firmly to his underclass roots. His wife, Sybil Ramkin, scion of the oldest noble family in Ankh-Morpork, serves as counterpoint to the rest of the city’s gentry, who are for the most part a hidebound and abhorrent group of people. In Men At Arms, Vimes notes, “if you had enough money, you could hardly commit crimes at all. You just perpetrated amusing little peccadilloes.” Here, too, the City Watch acts as a leveling force. One of the things that Vimes’s rise allows him to do is hold the wealthy accountable for their crimes – just like his ancestor, an Oliver Cromwell-esque figure who beheaded the city’s last king because of a combined affinity for dungeons and children. As Vimes ascends, so does the legacy of Suffer-Not-Injustice “Old Stoneface” Vimes. The Watch is on the side of the common people, who, as Vimes says in Feet of Clay, are “nothing special. They’re no different from the rich and powerful except they’ve got no money and no power. But the law should be on their side.” Everyone should be treated as an individual; everyone should be held accountable.

There isn’t anything revolutionary about Pratchett’s political philosophy. It falls solidly into the auspices of classical liberalism – everyone deserves a fair shot in society, and society is bettered by the inclusion of individuals. But given the rising inequality in English-speaking Western countries – especially in the United States – it is important to remember our philosophical roots. And if we get them from sources as wide and varied as supposedly apolitical parodic fantasy novels as well as political polemics, all the better.

Word on the street is that Personhood Colorado is once again trying to get a fetal personhood amendment on Colorado’s 2012 ballot, despite getting soundly defeated twice before, in 2008 and 2010. And when I say soundly, I mean by a 3-to-1 ratio. Personhood amendments make even moderate pro-lifers uneasy.

We’ve been building up to this, though, and it’s easy to see its germination in retrospect. It started in earnest in the early oughts with the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Although the act is more closely linked to the 2002 Laci Peterson murder, noted asshole Lindsey Graham introduced it to Congress in 1999, which is how you know it was never intended to be a bill protecting women. (Lindsey Graham hates women.) Like a lot of other anti-abortion measures disingenuously claiming to be for women’s benefit (we’re looking at you and your hospital-admission requirements, Arizona and Mississippi), this one seems to be coming from a place of concern. Although statistics on the homicide rate of pregnant women are difficult to come by and sadly limited, homicide is the third leading cause of death in pregnant women after pregnancy complications and accidents. Instituting extra penalties for the murder of a pregnant woman is reasonable, right?

The furor over the Scott Peterson case threw Graham’s proposal into the limelight, and in 2004 President Bush signed the bill into law. A handful of states had previous had similar measures, but in the early oughts it exploded across state legislatures as well: 27 states now have fetal protection bills during all of pregnancy, and 9 more post-viability. All of which means that murdering a pregnant woman counts as a double homicide in 36 states and on the federal level.

What this has done, though, is create the precedent that there is a discrete human being in the womb. In fact, pro-lifers point to the fetal homicide laws as evidence that we already treat fetuses as people in some aspects of the law, so why not go whole hog and treat them like full citizens? Personhood amendments are the right-wing’s attempt at codifying this belief into law, and they have been growing in popularity. Colorado and Montana look to put it on their ballots this fall, and just yesterday Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) stalled the passage of a bill increasing flood insurance for the hurricane season because he wanted to attach a fetal personhood amendment. Yeah, fuck you, no.

Thankfully, most people are still seriously not on board with the idea of fetal personhood. It was forthrightly put down in Colorado both times it appeared on the ballot, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court declared in unconstitutional in late April, and 58% of Mississippi’s voters — voters living in the most socially conservative state in the Union — rejected it last November. There is a lot to criticize. The wording is unclear, and the implications range from plausible and intensely problematic to the outright absurd. These amendments stipulate that human life begins at the moment of fertilization, which means that birth control preventing implantation is verboten. No IUDs, definitely no Plan B; there are even hardliners who say that the Pill — primarily used to prevent ovulation, but also supposedly provides an unfriendly uterine environment for a fertilized egg — is out. No IVF, either, since that process involves creating a number of embryos, many of which go unused and frozen. They’re people too! Obviously no abortion whatsoever, without even the usual exceptions for victims of rape and incest. The most recently proposed amendment in Colorado explicitly states, “No innocent child created through rape or incest shall be killed for the crime of his or her father.” In fact, last fall, one of the founders of Personhood Mississippi promoted the amendment with a campaign called the “Conceived in Rape Tour.” Charming. (This activist, Les Riley, is also a Christian Reconstructionist and heads a Neo-Confederate organization. Make of that what you will.)

The absurd implications extend outward from there. If a fetus is a human being the moment it becomes two cells, could someone buy alcohol at age 20 and three months? If such a rule were in place, would I have been able to vote for John Kerry in 2004, since I was seventeen and several months? Can I put my eight-weeks-along fetus as a dependent on my tax forms? How do we gauge population and voter districting? These are ridiculous questions asked by critics of the amendment, but it showcases what a governmental clusterfuck such a law would provoke.

But to a certain extent those questions only obscure the real point of these amendments, which is an increased policing of pregnant women’s bodies and the denial of women as anything but potential and current incubators for these apparently full people in our wombs. The next step from fetal personhood is criminalizing miscarriages, and don’t think that hasn’t already been placed on the table. Last year a Georgia state rep proposed a bill that would require a criminal investigation into every miscarriage, and I am sure I don’t need to explain how problematic that would be. Beyond the emotional damage to a women treated as a criminal after an already emotionally destructive experience — an experience that occurs, remember, in about a quarter of all pregnancies – it would prevent women from seeking out appropriate medical care after such an event. Thankfully, this particular egregiousness is mostly confined to the fringe elements; this Georgia rep also frequently introduces bills attempting to get Georgia back on the Gold Standard. But the idea itself is out there, and it’s dangerous.

The personhood zeitgeist has invaded states in ways markedly deleterious to the very fabric of women’s rights in this country. Although the amendments keep failing, lawmakers are doing their best to create a friendly environment for sneaking it into law regardless. More and more women are getting arrested for child neglect during pregnancy. The tragic case of Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana is only one example of the direction things are moving. Dumped by the father of her child during her pregnancy, she tried to commit suicide. She survived but her fetus died, and she has been charged for its murder. She was recently released on bond after spending a year in jail, but her case has yet to go to trial.

And it’s not just Shuai. Dozens of women in Alabama have recently been charged with child neglect and chemical endangerment for abusing drugs while pregnant and/or giving birth to children with drugs in their system. (“Chemical endangerment” is a law intended to prosecute people with children running around their meth labs.) Look, I agree that giving birth to children addicted to or otherwise affected by drugs and alcohol is reprehensible, but arresting these women and taking them away from their families does more harm than good. Studies have shown that illegal drugs like cocaine and amphetamines are on the same level of danger as tobacco use, nowhere near as destructive to fetal development as alcohol, and that the shock of withdrawal is ultimately worse for a pregnancy than continued moderate use.

It’s clear that the best thing for children, born and fetal alike, is greater access to and funding for social services. Offer reputable and affordable drug rehabilitation for everyone; educate people; improve quality of life in general and offer access to affordable health care. Punitive measures make things objectively worse. Obviously this isn’t about children but rather about punishing and dehumanizing women. How long before we’re all “pre-pregnant” and have to constantly watch what we do and consume? As a great sage once said, if I wanted the government in my vagina, I’d fuck a senator.

(Whoops, I said the vee-word.)


(x-posted to Carpet & Drapes)

As some of you might know, although I live in Illinois now, I hail from the worst of the Rust Belt: the Great Lakes State, a place some people have taken to calling the Mississippi of the North, a place I have (what now seems like) an unreasonable affinity towards. I know you’re all looking forward to my overhaul of May’s new anti-abortion laws, and I have a Personhood Amendment article all set up in the chute to be edited and posted, but I need to get this off my chest right about now: Go Fuck Yourself, Michigan.

I have been active and aware of the battle for reproductive rights for a very long time. When I was sixteen years old, my mother took me to a conference celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Although I have so far been lucky and never needed to avail myself of the option to have an abortion, I have always thought about how terrifying it would be to live in a place like Mississippi or Utah, to live somewhere where sexual activity always has that heightened risk. Michigan’s former rules, while constrictive, weren’t terrible; parental notification laws are shitty, but I wasn’t sexually active until after I turned eighteen, so it was moot for me. No longer.

If this bill passes, it is possible that when I move back to Detroit, I am going to move into a place where there are no abortion clinics, because they can’t afford to be open. Because the clinics that provide only medical abortions will now be forced to have surgical rooms – just in case? Just in case of what? Where providers will have to have one million dollars of liability insurance. I will be moving back to a place where I have to get counseling, to make sure I’m really really sure I want this abortion. (Bitch, I’ve known I’ve wanted this abortion since before I started having sex.) I’m moving back to a place where I have to pay an extra $400 to get the remains of my eight-week-old fetus cremated, back to a place where I would never even want to try to have children, because if I found out that my fetus had spina bifida in week 21 of my pregnancy I would have to carry it to term.

I would be moving back to a state in which the legislators prevented pro-choice voices from testifying, and just this week censured two female representatives for speaking out against the bill. I’m sure you’ve all heard this by now, but I’m reiterating it to hammer home the absurdity: Representative Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) was prevented from adding an amendment regulating the practice of vasectomies. Representative Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield) stood up and said, “I’m flattered you’re all so concerned about my vagina. But no means no.” (Later, the GOP Majority Floor Leader, Jim Stamas, R-Midland of course, said that it wasn’t because of the vee-word but because of the rape metaphor. Well, that makes sense, then.) Both of these women are now banned from speaking on the House floor, indefinitely.

So fuck you, Michigan. Fuck you and your GOP legislature and your crazy rednecks in the UP and your crazy Christians in Grand Rapids, fuck you for making me afraid to have sex.


(x-posted to Carpet & Drapes)

Every so often, I’ll read articles like Salon’s The Mother of all Tea Party Triumphs? and have a quiet little giggle as lines like this catch my eye:

O’Donnell, previously known only for waging a series of hopeless, quixotic campaigns, has caught fire in the last few weeks, thanks largely to the Tea Party Express, which has poured money into the state on her behalf, and to a late endorsement from Sarah Palin. [emphasis mine]

All I can imagine is that the entire past two years have been Palin constructing an elaborate and hilarious plot to transform the Republican Party into a pile of reactionary absurdism. I see her sitting in a log cabin in Wasilla, cackling to herself and rubbing her hands together (half maniacally, half because I assume it’s always balls cold in Alaska) at every GOP primary where her Mr/s Anglo-Saxon Christian Crazy wins now but will get resoundingly defeated in general elections come November. The best kind of agent provocateur.

Sometimes (just sometimes), the fact that she’s most likely not doing it on purpose makes it even funnier.