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Abortion & Birth Control

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Rolling the Clocks Back.

[T]his new method changes everything. To start with, it uses normal adult blood cells from the patient, so there’s not need to keep umbilical cords in storage. It also doesn’t use any virus reprogramming, so it’s completely safe. It’s also very efficient: researchers successfully transformed about 50 to 60 percent of adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells that can then be turn into any type of cell—a heart muscle cell, a bone cell, a nerve cell, anything.

By way of Dangerous Meta, researchers figure out a way to manufacture embryonic stem cells without an embryo, thus clearing the path for future research in that direction unhampered by abortion politics. “The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable – from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.

Akin is the New Normal.

So, Todd Akin. I must say, it’s heartening to see some of the Taliban-like tendencies of today’s GOP finally drawing condemnation in the culture at large. But the thing is, what Rep. Akin said is very much within the mainstream of his party. This was not a one-off event: They actually believe this tripe, and they’re constantly voting like The Handmaid’s Tale was meant to be aspirational.

In their very first month back in power, Paul Ryan, Akin and the gang — 225 Members, in fact — were trying to define rape down — “House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed [it] a top priority in the new Congress.” — and that bill passed the House(!)

Yes, today’s Democrats have their own serious problems — our leaders prostrate themselves before the phantom deficit gods, look the other way on Wall Street malfeasance, and have been actively terrible on the civil liberties front, and our policy playbook (individual mandate, cap-and-trade) has too often been cribbed from the Republicans of the ’90s. But it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Akin is not an aberration in the GOP — He’s the new normal. Not that anyone who comes around here still does this sort of thing, but if you vote Republican, have no illusions about what you are doing: Ayn Rand and Akinism is basically what you’re voting for. Seriously, these guys are cray-cray.

(By the way, the great facehugger pic above is from From Talking to Doctors — worth checking out.)

Deregulating Rape.

With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to ‘forcible rape.’ This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion.

On the principle that, as per MLK, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” I post more often here these days about issues I have with our own, ostensibly-lefty party. But, as Dangerous Meta reminds me: Just in case anyone forgot how crazy the Republicans are these days, the GOP Congress has, for pro-life purposes, actually fashioned a bill that defines rape down. “House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed [it] a top priority in the new Congress.” There are no words.

Better Late than Never.

There are a lot of people who have trouble coming to terms with that because they see marriage as traditionally between a man and a woman. But I also know that, you know, when couples are committed to each other and love each other, that they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has.” In the midst of her book tour, former First Lady Laura Bush confesses to being pro-choice and pro-gay-marriage. “Bush [also] said abortion should “remain legal, because I think it’s important for people, for medical reasons and other reasons.’” It would’ve been nice to hear her say as much a decade ago, of course, but I’m still glad that she’s made her feelings known.

Things I Learned from the Death Panels.

The ‘death panel’ episode shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel.” In the NYT, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) reviews the sad, sordid tale of Death Panel fear-mongering by the GOP this past summer.

In very related news, it seems the Republican National Committee’s health insurance plan, contra all their rhetoric on Stupak, has not only covered abortion services for the past eighteen years — it includes end-of-life counseling, a.k.a. the “Death Panels” of Sarah Palin’s nightmares. These folks really have no shame.


“[L]ives are what’s at stake in this debate, and moments like this are why they sent us here — to finally meet the challenges that Washington has put off for decades; to make their lives better and this nation stronger; to move America forward. That’s what the House did last night when it brought us closer than we have ever been to comprehensive health insurance reform in America.”

After many months of work and a long Saturday of debate (not to mention quite a few flagrant and ridiculous GOP lies along the way), the House passes the Affordable Health Care for America Act 220-215. (Joining 219 Dems was one solitary Republican, Anh Joseph Cao of William Jefferson’s old seat, and he voted after the bill had already crossed the 218 threshold.) And, much thanks to the people who have fought for it all this time, H.R. 3962 passed the House with the public option bloodied but still intact.

Alas, the skeleton at the feast was a successful gambit by the heretofore unknown pro-lifer Rep. Bart Stupak to use the necessity of health care reform to fundamentally alter the status quo on abortion. (Best tweet of the day, btw: “‘Stupak’ sounds like a political action committee for morons.”)

Stupak forces like to say they’re just upholding existing law with this amendment, which already states that federal funds will not be used to pay for abortions. But, in fact, this amendment goes further — it prohibits not only the public option but private insurance companies who operate in the exchange from offering abortion services to people who receive subsidies. Or, in other words, low-income women are going to be S.O.L. for starters, with mission creep ultimately denying more and more women reproductive choice and/or necessary medical procedures. (Stupak to women — don’t miscarry.)

On one hand, the good news is that Stupak’s gambit is pretty much dead in the water in the Senate — even the GOP isn’t warming to it. (And, while maintaining the usual “above-the-fray approach”for now — big surprise, I know — Obama has telegraphed he’s not a supporter of the idea.)

On the other, the Stupak situation shows one of the problems we now have as the majority party. Here we have a scion of the “Family” on C-Street playing shenanigans with critical Democratic legislation at the eleventh hour…and he was joined by 63 other Dems in getting the amendment passed. In fact, many of these look to be CYA votes by ostensible pro-choicers to shore up their moderate bona fides.

Even more troubling, 21 of the final 39 Democratic votes against health care reform voted for Stupak — i.e., they voted to screw up a bill they had absolutely no intention of supporting in the end. (Conversely, twenty Dems in GOP-leaning districts did the right thing — they voted against Stupak and for passage. They are listed here.) Simply put, these 21 are why primary challenges were invented.

Until congressional Democrats learn that bucking their left is just as — if not more — dangerous than prostrating themselves before the right, they’re going to continue to play these reindeer games. (To be clear, in almost all cases, it’s not like these holdouts’ issues with the bill came from the left.) And until these often craven middle-of-the-roaders feel the wrath of the stick as well as the carrot, we are going to remain locked in this dismal feedback loop where important bills are in danger of being endlessly watered down into “moderate” mush. (See also: no Single Payer, no Medicare +5.) And that’s just not change we can believe in.

Aside from the Recovery Act, the House hasn’t held as important a vote all year. And, if certain Dems can’t find a way to support critical Democratic legislation — legislation tempered to meet their approval, in fact — when the time comes, then don’t expect the progressive base to have their back just because they have a D by their name. The time to suffer such fools has passed.

In any event, Round 1 completed. Round 2, the Senate…

Frosty Nixon.

“‘There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,’ he told an aide, before adding, ‘Or a rape.’Another round of newly-released Nixon tapes sheds more light on the dark and troubling imaginings of the 37th president. “‘What I really think is deep down in this country, there is a lot of anti-Semitism, and all this is going to do is stir it up,’ Nixon said…’It may be they have a death wish. You know that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.’” Class act, this guy.

Dubya’s Monica, and her Spoils.

“‘Thirty-four candidates told investigators that Goodling or one of her deputies raised the topic of abortion in job interviews and 21 said they discussed same-sex marriage, the report said. Another job applicant said he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, only to watch Goodling ‘frown’ and respond, ‘But she’s pro-choice.'”

I mean, given all the other crimes and corruption within this sordid administration, why not throw in some good old-fashioned spoilsmanship? Another protracted investigation comes to a head today, as a 140-page internal report breaks down the illegal staffing system in Dubya’s Justice Department, as run by GOP apparachik Monica Goodling. [Mukasey reaction.] The reportconcluded yesterday that Goodling and others had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in ‘misconduct.’‘” (As seen at The Oak and The Spencerian.)

Darkness in Bucharest.

The Cannes winner of 2007 (over No Country for Old Men, which I still preferred), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a fearless look at a very dark day in the life of two Romanian women, is a tremendously harrowing exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, and a grim, unrelenting journey into the moral compromises and bureaucratic decay that characterized life in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. I have some issues with Mungiu’s film, which I’ll get to in a bit, but no one can deny that it’s a powerful and expertly-made movie, one that tortures with silences and devastates with quiet restraint. But it’s also, I have to admit, a film I admired more than truly enjoyed. That’s its intent, of course: I can’t think of any other movie I’ve seen lately that had me squirming with as much psychic discomfort. (Remember the visceral suspense of the hotel scene in No Country, when Chigurh passes by Llewelyn’s door and removes the hallway lightbulb? Now imagine having that feeling for over an hour.) Still, while I can’t deny 4 Month‘s emotional hold, I think I ultimately prefer The Lives of Others — a film that offsets its tragic tale with moments of grace, humor, and even redemption — when it comes to recent fables of the Eastern Bloc.

4 Months establishes its naturalistic, real-time feel from its opening moments, as we watch a young Romanian student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) fiddle with her belongings and seemingly make preparations for an important trip. As she frets, her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, Oscar-worthy) wanders down the hall of their dormitory, navigating the nooks and crannies of a casual black market economy with a bored, practiced ease. (She picks up cigarettes for bribing officials, looks over the recent array of smuggled-in beauty products, and procures some Tic Tacs from a friendly dealer-neighbor.) But Otilia too gives the sense that something major is afoot, something we gradually glean the outlines of as the day goes along. Leaving Gabita behind, Otilia ventures out to lock down a nearby hotel room (something Gabita was previously meant to do, but apparently didn’t), borrows some money from her boyfriend (Alexandru Potoceanu), and eventually goes — on behalf of Gabita — to meet a Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov, memorably sinister), a man we eventually come to learn is a back-alley abortionist.

Then, things get worse. For not only is abortion a criminal offense under the Ceausescu regime, one that carries a penalty of prison or even death, but the helpless Gabita (the pregnant one) turns out to be flaky and careless to the extreme, and basically an abuser of Otilia’s competence and compassion. Worst of all, the seemingly innocuous Mr. Bebe — despite dripping with doctorly condescension toward the “young ladies” — turns out to be the type of monster that can readily flourish in the interstices of totalitarianism, reveling in the power he manages to hold over the desperate Gabita and Otilia. And, even beyond the ruthless Bebe — who, trust me, is more than loathsome enough — there awaits the very real risk of medical complications, and the danger of discovery by the authorities…

Sustained by long, masterful, and unbroken shots, 4 Months manages to ratchet up the tension well beyond comfortable levels, making even scenes of a casual dinner party at Otilia’s boyfriend’s house palpable with dread. Like the two women at the center of the story — and, like many people living through totalitarianism, I’d suspect — we’re constantly on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. (But don’t get me wrong — some really horrifying shoes drop in this film.) As a remorseless and nerve-wracking Eastern bloc thriller, 4 Months has few parallels I can think of. So why do I harbor reservations about the film? Well, four years, 0 months, and 3 days ago, I wrote of the considerably overpraised 21 Grams that it “just ambles around in its terminally depressed jag for so long that it loses any sense of perspective, and instead becomes just a vehicle for indulging the arthouse fallacy that misery is a substitute for character.” Now, 4 Months is a much, much better film than 21 Grams, but — however tense and suffused with menace — the same problem persists.

Coming out of 4 Months, I was reminded of an interview I read with David Simon about the importance of humor in The Wire, which however bleak is also by all accounts a gut-bustingly funny show. (I know, I won’t shut up about The Wire, but bear with me here.) This article makes the same point: “Though people don’t talk much about the humor in ‘The Wire,’ it’s there. You drop somebody into an alien environment — a closed society like the homicide cops or the drug culture–and the key to working your way into that culture is to understand the jokes, which David does. It’s crucial, because, if it weren’t there, the work would be too depressing. It’s crushing subject matter, but not necessarily to the cops–they’re making jokes while they’re looking at dead bodies–and not to the people shooting dope, even. They’re not necessarily walking around saying, ‘Woe is me.’ There’s a grim humor that springs out of that life.” Picking up along the same lines, Jacob Weisberg wrote: “While The Wire feels startlingly lifelike, it is not in fact a naturalistic depiction of ghetto life. That kind of realism better describes an earlier miniseries of Simon’s, The Corner…The Corner seems to have been a crucial life study for The Wire, a program that attains the dimensions of tragedy without being depressing. The Wire does this by painting with brighter colors on a wider canvas and by leavening its pain with humor…What ultimately makes The Wire uplifting amid the heartbreak it conveys is its embodiment of a spirit that Barack Obama calls ‘the audacity of hope.’” (You see how I snuck in an Obama reference with a Wire reference? See, I’m always on message.)

Seriously, though, it’s that critique which gets to the heart of my hesitation about fully embracing 4 Months. I don’t fault its unflinching refusal to sugar-coat what amounts to a horrible tale in a sad time and place, and it probably speaks worse of me than of Mungiu’s film to even hold such a thing against it. Many stories — maybe even most of them — don’t have happy endings or a laugh track. And, after all, we watch Otilia and Gabita persevere through an extraordinary amount of suffering, so why should they have to crack a joke just to let us off the hook, and make us feel better about their obvious misery? Still, if you can look past the razor-sharp tension that drives 4 Months, it is a relentlessly downbeat — and even one-note — affair. 4 Months is an impressive and powerful movie in any event, but I think I’d hold the film in higher esteem if it — like The Lives of Others — occasionally broke the gloom and allowed its long-suffering characters an uncertain smile, even while staring into the abyss.

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