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Men, Women Watch the High Court

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gloria Feldt says heroes like Allan Rosenfield keep her from framing the issues in male-v-female terms.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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Gloria Feldt says heroes like Allan Rosenfield keep her from framing the issues in male-v-female terms.
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Gloria Feldt

(WOMENSENEWS)--The elections are over but that doesn't mean the political season has ended; the country's highest court is moving with heavy gait on questions that transcend congressional sessions.

The very day after the Nov. 7 elections, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood; twin cases challenging a 2003 federal abortion ban statute (inaccurately named "The Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003" -- there's no such medical term or procedure).

And two days ago the Supremes heard Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., about a woman's career-long wage discrimination.

These cases of enormous importance to women's lives and liberties--likely to be decided before the High Court's current session ends on June 30--direct the eyes of the country toward the two men appointed to the Court by President George W. Bush: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Roberts has dismissed the notion of a right to privacy and said he believes that Congress has the power to strip the Court of authority to rule on civil rights issues such as school prayer and abortion. These bedrock constitutional principles have protected women for the past several decades. But given the changed Court, it is not clear whether even the new Democrat-controlled Congress can stop the rightward march to roll back women's rights.

Alito, who deftly obscured his opinions on most everything during his hearings last January, has been unabashed in his personal anti-choice beliefs and ruled when sitting on a lower court in favor of abortion restrictions later reversed on appeal. He holds the seat vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor but clearly sits far to her right.

The appointments of Alito and Roberts have made Justice Anthony Kennedy the pivotal swing vote on which reproductive justice will stand or fall.

Male-Dominated Spectacle

Because the outcome boils down to a male-dominated court ruling on issues so directly affecting women, it's easy to bridle at the spectacle, just as many of us did three years ago, after President Bush signed the abortion ban bill into law and a photo of him surrounded by an all-male cheering section flew around the Internet.

But I have a good reason to resist reflexively anticipating that men will do ill to women's rights and health just because they are men. His name is Dr. Allan Rosenfield.

As founding director of Columbia University's Center for Population and Family Health and as dean of Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health for the past 20 years he's widely known widely for "putting the M back into MCH" (Maternal and Child Health).

His commitment to women's health started early. Fresh out of ob-gyn residency at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston in the late 1960s, Rosenfield went to Nigeria to teach obstetrics. Later he worked to start a family planning program in Thailand, where he saw the dire consequences of unsafe abortion and unsafe childbirth practices. He also saw that women's lack of power to say "no" to unwanted sex and childbearing kept them from being able to say "yes" to other aspects of their lives.

Rosenfield's Lifelong Commitment

"Women are dying and we're not really doing anything about it," he thought, and began what has turned out to be a lifelong commitment to women's reproductive health. His work on behalf of women's health and family planning has led him more recently straight into the battle against the HIV pandemic.

Rosenfield's perspective on reproductive justice couldn't be more different from that of Alito and Roberts, in large part because of what he saw first hand as a young doctor.

But his example illustrates that birth control, reproductive health, abortion, and related matters are not necessarily a male-versus-female story.

True, the American birth control movement was started by a woman, Margaret Sanger, who later raised the money from another woman, Katherine Dexter McCormick, to fund research leading to the birth control pill.

Estelle Griswold challenged her state's anti-birth control laws, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision legalizing birth control nationwide, citing the right to privacy.

A young Texas lawyer, Sarah Weddington, successfully argued Roe v. Wade, which found in 1973 that the constitutional right to privacy in reproductive matters was broad enough to encompass a woman's right to choose abortion. And throughout the history of the movement in the U.S. and globally, women have typically been the most visible leaders and groundbreakers.

Carhart Carved Legal Precedent

But while women's leadership may be central, it is a retired military man, Dr. Leroy Carhart, whose name is already etched in U.S. jurisprudence as the plaintiff who caused the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm in 2000 the primacy of women's health in abortion laws. Carhart continues his practice in a suburb of Omaha, Neb., despite legal challenges and anti-choice harassment. He proves that the commitment to fighting for freedom knows no gender.

Many other courageous male doctors provide women the full range of reproductive health services despite harassment and even violence. To name some would only make the omissions of others conspicuous.

I've never known Allan Rosenfield to be humble. But he seems genuinely astonished by the tributes he has received over the past year since he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (A.L.S.). Many of these testimonials have observed that his work has saved hundreds of millions of women's lives around the world. He says with quiet certainty, "My greatest satisfaction has come from my overall focus on women's health and being identified as a champion for the empowerment of women."

The women of America should be grateful for the men like Rosenfield and others who have advanced reproductive justice.

If current trends continue, the Supreme Court will mete out ever smaller portions of justice to women. Yet if men like Justice Kennedy and perhaps even Justices Roberts and Alito can come to see the world as Rosenfield and Carhart do--that the women's health decisions are for women to make and women's lives are worth saving--then women's right to reproductive self-determination could be reaffirmed once again.

Gloria Feldt is the author of "The War on Choice" and wrote the afterword for the recently released "Abortion Under Attack; Women on the Challenges of Choice."

Women's eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:


Allan Rosenfield tributes:
http://www.mailman.hs.columbia.edu/

"Safe Motherhood: Twenty Years and Counting"
[Adobe PDF format]:
http://www.familycareintl.org/UserFiles/File/safe%20motherhood%2020%20yrs%20and%20counting.pdf

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