Archive for the ‘health’ Category

I’ve been meaning to watch if for a while, and this weekend I finally made time to watch MTV’s “No Easy Decision” special. Famous for the shows “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” on December 28th MTV aired “No Easy Decision” (at 11:30 PM) to portray one of the alternatives to teen pregnancy: abortion. I’ve never watched “Teen Mom” or “16 and Pregnant,” but from what I’ve seen of MTV, I was initially expecting the show to be bad and melodramatic. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be incredibly moving, informative, and pragmatic–and I would encourage everyone to watch it.

“No Easy Decision” is about 30 minutes long. The first five minutes introduce us to Markai Durham, a teenager previously featured on “16 and Pregnant” after giving birth to her daughter Zakaria. Pregnant again after missing her shot of Depo-Provera, she and her boyfriend James weigh their options–having another baby and struggling to raise, feed, and take care of two children, or having an abortion, something that they both are hesitant to do. (When someone suggests adoption, Markai immediately responds that she’d be too in love with the child by the time it was born to give it up–something that many people overlook when they push adoption on women with unwanted pregnancies.) After consulting with a women’s clinic (we watch the phone conversation, listening to the friendly and informative woman on the other end of the phone and watching Markai cry) and a close friend, and numerous tearful conversations with James, the two decide that having an abortion is the decision that would make most sense for them, Zakaria, and their unborn child.

Abortion is not portrayed as an easy thing to do. After the procedure, Markai struggles with her decision, wondering what it would be like to have another child. She and Mark go out to dinner, and she talks about how the counselor and argue after Mark refers to the unborn child (which Markai refers to as a bunch of cells) as a “thing”–she feels sensitive and defensive about her decision. Markai tells the camera that choosing abortion was the “toughest decision ever,” and that she wouldn’t choose it as a first option for anyone, but that “it’s not the right time” because she’d have to sacrifice so much of her life, Mark’s life, and her daughter’s life in order to raise another child. In a follow-up interview, Markai says that she feels sadness, but not regret.

The show concludes with an interview with three women–Markai, Natalia, and Katie–about how they feel after having abortions. I thought it was amazing to hear the three women’s stories because they were all so different–it showed how abortion doesn’t simply apply to one type of woman. Katie got pregnant the summer before her senior year in college (she had bad reactions to her birth control, and didn’t know that throwing up her pill meant she was not protected), two weeks before her 18-year old sister gave birth to her son. She chose to get an abortion after seeing how much her sister had to deal with during her pregnancy, and realizing that she did not want to go through the same. Natalia had an abortion at 17 after discovering she was pregnant. I found her story particularly moving because she had to go to court, alone, in order to get an abortion–she did not want to tell her parents, and because she lived in one of the 35 states that require parental consent, she had to plead in front of a judge in order to waive the requirement, something that she (similar to many girls) found to be necessary but emotionally trying. Her only assistance in paying for the abortion came from her ex-boyfriend; in order to pay the $750 dollars that her abortion was to cost, she sold back her high school prom ticket. That struck a chord with me, as a girl about to go to prom, because it was so raw and real–a girl my age had to go through that whole ordeal alone. All three of the girl’s stories were different, but they seemed to agree on the idea that their decisions were “parenting decisions”–that they made their decisions not just thinking about what kind of life they wanted for themselves, but also what kind of life they want for their children.

As Lynn Harris of Salon writes, one of the best things about the show is that in addition to everything else, it includes medically accurate information about abortion procedures and the challenge of finding the right birth control method. It also makes it clear that abortion is not a rare, dangerous procedure: Dr. Drew, the host, explains that about 750,000 girls in the U.S. get pregnant every year, and that nearly a third of those teen pregnancies end in abortion. He says that abortion is “among the safest, most common medical procedures in the US” and cites an oft-ignored figure, the fact that 1/3 of all women in America will have an abortion at one point their lives.

At a time when few television shows are willing to openly discuss or portray abortion, MTV’s “No Easy Decision” is an incredibly important and engaging addition. The show made me cry, not just because the girls’ stories were moving, but because stories like theirs are so rarely told. Abortion can be and is the right choice for many women, and needs to be treated as such–bringing an unwanted child into this world is not good for the parents, the child, or society.

PS: If you want to show support for the three women who shared their stories (something many, many women are afraid to do), go to 16 and Loved, created by Exhale, and share your thoughts.


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This post is cross-posted at JWA

There was a really interesting article in The New York Times last week by Kristof about individuals who are, in effect, creating foreign aid on their own. He writes about various people who, feeling passionately about helping the world, got up, changed their lives, and simply, did it. He tells a few stories, highlighting the fact that many of the members of the “Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid Revolution” are women. One that I find to be particularly interesting is the story of Elizabeth Scharpf. While interning for a summer in Mozambique with the World Bank, she learned that many women were hesitant to go to work while menstruating because of the high cost of feminine hygiene products. When she came back to Harvard, she asked around, and discovered that a similar problem existed in many countries around the globe, but that it was often a topic too taboo to discuss.

So she came home, contacted people she knew in pharmaceuticals and biotech, and tried to design a company to produce cheap sanitary pads that women could distribute through a franchise system. After discovering that commercial pads were expensive to manufacture because of pricey raw materials, she got together a team that designed a pad made out of banana fibers that proved to be eco-friendly, absorbent, and significantly cheaper to produce. After winning a grant and a fellowship, Scharpf has created an organization called Sustainable Health Enterprises that will begin manufacturing pads next year in Rwanda and that is advocating for the Rwandan government to lift the 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products to make them more affordable.

It’s unclear how much of an effect the banana-fiber pads will have. Perhaps they will still be too expensive for families to buy, or girls will still miss school because of menstrual cramps. There are studies that show that providing girls with pads actually increases school attendance, and studies that show that bicycles would help more than pads; the pads’ immediate effects are still an unknown.

However, I think that even if her project does not have grand, sweeping results, it’s important to think about the fact that this is exactly the type of innovation that our world needs today: ideas that take into account and carefully consider monetary, environmental, and social concerns. Often times, we think about philanthropy just in terms of giving money, and forget that money needs to go somewhere—and that where it goes matters. Instead of trying to pay for women’s sanitary pads and continue to supply women with them, Scharpf is trying to create a sustainable system that can exist without a constant stream of money from outside donors. Not only that, but she’s trying to empower women by filling an obvious void in their lives, and relieving them of one more burden preventing them from going to school. It takes a lot of time to change a society in which women are expected to miss school often, but providing them with the tools they need to allow them to feel comfortable school is the first step.

I wanted to share this with you all because I think it’s an interesting and important story, but also because as Jewish women we should remember that we’re part of a long train of healthcare activism. Lillian Wald, the woman who first coined the term “public health nurse,” was a leader of a movement of nurses who worked outside of hospitals inside poor communities. These women, taking a new and novel approach to healthcare, worked on preventative health as well as treatment of ailing patients. Under Wald’s influence, the New York Board of Health began to organize the first public nursing system in the world. Wald did not just work for a short-term solution to a problem, but rather succeeded at shaping a long-term healthcare system. With her in mind, we should applaud women like Scharpf for their innovation and efforts.

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A few quick words about the Facebook “I like it” meme that was supposedly created to raise awareness for breast cancer.

Two days ago, I was surprised by the fact that half of my female Facebook friends’ statuses consisted of “I like it,” followed by some surface (which, upon asking, you could find out is the surface on which they supposedly like to keep their purses.) I think it’s silly, but more than that, I think it leads to complacency where complacency should not be. Yes, saying something with implicit sexual meaning is a great way to get people’s attention to a cause, but nothing about saying “I like it” and responding to questions about a status by saying that it is to raise awareness about breast cancer actually does anything to fight breast cancer. Unlike a lot of important causes that people do not often like to talk about (ulcerative colitis and depression, for example), people love talking about breast cancer–the idea of it, that is. Anywhere you look, you can find a pink ribbon or wristband for breast cancer awareness. But few people like to actually do anything to work towards fighting and preventing breast cancer–and that’s what we need to encourage, not awareness that breast cancer exists.

We need to tell women that if they have high density breasts, mammograms may not be able to detect cancerous growths in their breasts. We need to tell women about their risk factors and what they can do to try to prevent breast cancer. We need to teach girls how to do a breast self-exam. These are the things we should be doing–not spreading the world that breast cancer exists. There’s nothing bad or malicious about the “I like it” meme (from a sociological point of view it’s actually pretty fascinating), but I think that just like last year’s bra color fad, it’s very much a wasted opportunity.

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Yesterday, the FDA approved Ella, an emergency contraceptive that is about effective up to 120 hours after unprotected sex and that is currently available in 22 countries. According to the NYT:

Women who have unprotected intercourse have about 1 chance in 20 of becoming pregnant. Those who take Plan B within three days cut that risk to about 1 in 40, while those who take ella would cut that risk to about 1 in 50, regulators say.

Plan b, the current form of emergency contraception, which is available over-the-counter for people 17 and older, claims to be effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Less than two months ago, a federal advisory committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of Ella. Unlike the long, drawn-out FDA decision to make Plan B available without a prescription, the last FDA discussion about emergency contraception, this approval process has been quick and efficient, which many women’s health advocates celebrate as a step away from what they see as FDA’s previous political agenda. However, women will need a prescription to get Ella.

The debate over Ella that has ensued is because of comparisons to RU-486, what many people call the abortion pill. Ella’s main ingredient is ulipristal acetate, which works as a contraceptive by blocking progesterone, thereby delaying the ovaries’ egg production. However, because RU-486 prevents a fertilized egg from implanting and dislodges growing embryos by blocking progesterone, as progesterone is needed to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and to nurture a developing embryo, some people say that Ella will do the same and that it is another “abortion pill.” Studies on animals have shown that ella has little effect on established pregnancies, suggesting that it will not induce abortions like RU-486; however, it has not been tested as an abortion pill for humans, so there is no conclusive evidence as to whether or not it could serve as one. Even without evidence, antiabortion groups such as Concerned Women for America have made statements declaring it an “abortion drug.”

In the article linked to above, and in this article in the Washington Post, it says that one of the fears that critics of the pill have is that men will slip the pill to unsuspecting women. Now, the fact that both the NYT and the Washington Post felt the need to mention this fact means that people are actually worried about this, which I find very surprising, and kind of funny—if men are going to slip women Ella, then wouldn’t they slip them Plan B (which they wouldn’t need a prescription for), or birth control every night? What kind of regulatory concern is it that men would secretly slip women pills: yes, it could happen, but it could also happen with myriad other pills, too.

Either way, I think that it’s important that the FDA approved Ella for women in the US. It’s another option for women to prevent unwanted pregnancies, at a time when about one half of all pregnancies are unwanted. And most people, both pro-choice and anti-abortion, agree that unwanted pregnancy is an issue that must be dealt with, both to reduce the number of abortions that occur and because children born from an unwanted pregnancy are more likely to have developmental and childhood issues. While calling Ella an abortion pill is only speculation, it is fact that Ella can prevent unwanted pregnancies and help prevent unwanted pregnancies and their repercussions.

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When a friend of mine pointed out this article from the Washington Jewish Week to me a few days ago, I was surprised, because I had never heard about what it is written on. The article talks about an organization called In Shifra’s Arms, which was created in order to, in their words, “help you overcome obstacles to raising your child (parenting) or overcome obstacles to choosing loving adoptive parents to raise your child. We’re here to listen and serve.” The article explains that Erica Pelman created In Shifra’s Arms in order to help women get through a pregnancy who need support. It also includes a quote from vice-chair of the organization, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, saying how In Shifra’s Arms fills a gap that existed—churches often have signs outside of their buildings that say “Pregnant, need help?” as well as programs set up with crisis pregnancy centers for pregnant women looking for help, but synagogues do not.

And that’s when I started to feel a little uncomfortable: when it became a comparison to crisis pregnancy centers. The mission of In Shifra’s Arms sounded admirable at first—a lot of women really do need support to get them through a pregnancy, and the Jewish community is no exception. But crisis pregnancy centers are not simply places of support for pregnant women. As the article goes on to mention, crisis pregnancy centers have been criticized by pro-choice activists but also by many medical professionals for providing women with misleading information, refusing to assist women who want an abortion, and refusing to give referrals for places to get abortions. According to research done by NARAL Pro-Choice America, crisis pregnancy centers across Maryland consistently provide women with false information, such as telling them that abortions cause breast cancer and that abortions cause severe psychological issues. Many are staffed by badly trained and unqualified volunteers, and many use scare tactics (such as showing women videos of an abortion) to try to force women to keep their babies. While the study was performed only in Maryland, many of the crisis pregnancy centers are part of national networks.

The scary thing is that In Shifra’s Arms seems to fit much of the bill of a crisis pregnancy center. Firstly, Pelman received training from Birthright International, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers across the US and Canada. At least two of the crisis pregnancy centers investigated in the above NARAL study were Birthright centers, and although the study does not mention which centers had which problems, all centers were found out to give out misleading information to women—not a good sign. Pelman also says in the article that she would not assist a woman who wants to get an abortion, nor would she provide a referral for an abortion (except when a woman’s life is in danger, in which case she would provide a referral to a rabbi, but not a medical professional). The In Shifra’s Arms website paints abortion as extremely harmful to women’s health, citing various studies for support even though the American Psychological Association, among other major authorities on the issue have come out saying that there is no substantial evidence to show that abortion causes psychological issues among women any more than carrying out an unwanted pregnancy does. Quite a few traits that seem like those of a crisis pregnancy center.

So is this organization, like crisis pregnancy centers, trying to manipulate women into keeping their children? I do not know enough to say for sure, but I can say that there are some hints that it may not be trying to give women all the information that is out there to help them make their choices. And so people should be aware of that fact, and try to ensure that Jewish women do have other options than an organization that seems to be pushing an agenda other than simply helping women to come to their own decision.

It makes me sad to have to doubt this organization, because I think that there really is a need to help out women who want to raise a child but who might not have the resources; those women do deserve support and guidance. Women need to be able to make their own choices, and for many women that means keeping the child, and for many women that means having an abortion. But women deserve to make these choices based on true, factual information, and women deserve to make these choices without people pushing them towards what they believe. Because in the end, I believe that in order for people to be satisfied with the choice that they make, whichever choice that may be, they have to feel that it was theirs and that they were properly informed before they made it; the Jewish community, just like other communities, should strive to help them feel that way.

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