Prosecuting Rape Victims, What Next?

Representative Cathrynn Brown (Arizona)

In the wake of an election season peppered with references to rape by legislators vying for reelection or elevation to more prominent political positions: Representative Todd Akin’s woefully unscientific claim that “legitimate” rapes rarely result in pregnancy because women can “shut that whole thing down” or Richard Mourdock, Indiana state treasurer, reminding voters that when pregnancies result from rape “that it is something God intended to happen,” the deeply political intersections of criminal and health law became more visible.  Representative Joe Walsh (Ill), for example, claimed that “with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance” where a woman’s life can be saved with an abortion.   Problematically, such comments to unwitting constituents parade as fact and stand contrary to vetted medical studies.   For example, a recent study found that “women were about 14 times more likely to die during or after giving birth to a live baby than to die from complications of an abortion.” An abstract of the study can be found here.

Months ago, I wrote that it would be a mistake to isolate these politically-charged comments to republicans or even male legislators; on inspection, recent personhood amendments and the passage of fetal protection laws expose bipartisan collaboration on laws that may be unconstitutional, undermine women’s reproductive health, and prioritize criminal law interventions over healthcare and rehabilitation. More of that work can be found here, here, and here.

Most recently, Representative Cathrynn Brown of New Mexico stepped into the political fray on rape, exposing once more the ways in which women’s reproduction can become hostage to political pandering.  Last week, Brown proposed House Bill 206, a law that would criminally punish rape victims who seek abortions.  According to Brown, obtaining an abortion after sexual victimization amounts to “tampering with evidence.” Rape victims could face felony charges and up to three years in prison for violating the law.

Likely, Brown’s rape bill will not gain sufficient political support for passage.  Nevertheless, recent political efforts to redefine rape, blame victims, and use the criminal law as a sword to regulate victims’ responses to rape deserve serious scrutiny and sustained critical engagement.

Raffles for IVF Access?

As the New York Times reports (quoting me on the ethics), some American IVF clinics are now running raffles where the prize is IVF services. The contests give clinics publicity and sometimes serve charitable causes. Are IVF raffles unethical? Should we ban them?

Gambles and contests over the ability to have babies represent a new level of commodification—if you will, a new frontier. But they are not always unethical. Clinics do not owe infertile couples free access to IVF services. In some cases, the state and insurers don’t owe it to them either—legally or morally. IVF is expensive and some medical services are needed even more badly. Uninterested couples can avoid these raffles. What these raffles do is to give infertile couples opportunities that they would lack otherwise for obtaining an important benefit, opportunities that go beyond what clinics owe them. Lotteries, in particular, are not necessarily unfair means of distributing resources. Some philosophers deem them very fair. Even when couples with means can buy several raffle tickets, impoverished couples still get better chance of IVF access than under the current system. Money speaks, but it speaks less vocally than in much of American healthcare. In this respect, these raffles are a good parody of our unjust system.

 These contests are games. Conservatives worry that they take infertility or the beginnings of human life too lightly. But light-heartedness could be a good thing in this area. It might reduce the anxiety and the stigma that too often accompany infertility treatment. Associating the conception of new human life with fun? Traditional procreation can do that, too!

In short, not everything that’s odd is unethical. Notwithstanding initial “yuck” feelings, raffles for IVF access are not always morally wrong. It would have been morally more ideal if clinics offered free IVF services to everyone, or prioritized the neediest and the underserved, or gave rich and poor equal chance. But acting less than ideally is not doing wrong. Continue reading

“Overcriminalization” and HIV

By Scott Burris

The concept of “overcriminalization” is gaining traction across the political spectrum.

The Heritage Foundation, which has a website devoted to the phenomenon, defines it as “the trend in America – and particularly in Congress – to use the criminal law to ‘solve’ every problem, punish every mistake (instead of making proper use of civil penalties), and coerce Americans into conforming their behavior to satisfy social engineering objectives.”   Others, like Michelle Alexander, drop the Ayn Rand tones and focus on mass incarceration as racialized social control. (My colleagues and I once calculated that African American males can expect to spend on average 3.09 years in prison or jail over their lifetime.) Douglas Husak argues that we need a theory of criminalization to help us get less of it.

One of the best examples of criminal law rushing in where angels fear to tread is the criminalization of HIV exposure. From the start, there was reason to fear that these laws would not reduce HIV transmission, and might exacerbate stigma and social hostility towards people with HIV. There was concern they might be used selectively, or just randomly.

This summer, the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law advised states to repeal or abstain from enacting such laws.  The Commission drew on a set of background papers that reviewed the extent of the phenomenon globally and addressed the argument that these laws are justified by moral values even if they are ineffective.

In this country, the President’s National AIDS Strategy suggested states reconsider these laws, but no laws have been repealed and prosecutions continue.  Fortunately, so does research, and it continues to show that these laws are not promoting public health. This week, the American Journal of Public Health published a new PHLR-funded study by Carol Galletley. This video sums up her findings: