My Oma was born in a little village near the town of Hadamar. Hadamar sits in the shadow of a tall hill called Mönchberg – Monk’s Mountain. On top of that hill stands an old Franciscan monastery, which was converted into a state hospital and nursing home in 1803. In 1940, however, that hospital was turned into one of the infamous Nazi ‘killing centres’. These were the six institutions spread all over Germany where first children, and later also adults, with disabilities such as (in the language of those times) ‘idiocy and mongolism (especially when associated with blindness and deafness), microcephaly, hydrocephaly, malformations of all kinds, especially of limbs, head, and spinal column, and paralysis, including spastic conditions’ were taken, systematically starved to death or gassed, and cremated.
Oma rarely spoke to us about her experiences during the war. But we know that she was affected by the experience of living in the shadow of Mönchberg. I was the fifth of sixth children. Oma loved us all very dearly, but she had a favorite, and she never made even the feeblest attempt to hide it. The other five of us were all her Silberfische – silverfishes. My older brother, Jim, was her Goldfisch – her goldfish.
Jim was born ‘mentally retarded’. When he was born back in 1952, the medical professionals counselled my parents to send him to live in an institution. My parents refused, and with much work and love, they taught Jim to do all those things that the medical professionals told my parents he would never do, like talk and walk. Jim graduated from high school. He is bilingual – fluent in German as well as English. He reads the newspaper everyday. Jim has held the same full-time position in the kitchen of a country club for twenty years now, and does not receive any sort of public assistance. Jim is known around our family as ‘the human jukebox’, for his uncanny ability to remember the lyrics to any song, from any era, by any artist.
In some sense, although we did not live in the town of Hadamar, I think that all the kids in my family grew up in the shadow of Mönchberg as well. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that the first targets of the Nazi’s gas chambers were people with disabilities. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that my brother Jim would probably not have been allowed to live if he had been born just ten years earlier, in the same hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where I was later born – a former German military hospital in which my mother noticed, the first time she was there, swastikas carved in the borders along the top of the walls. I grew up with a visceral awareness of the potential within humanity to decide that it is legitimate to kill certain categories of people because of the costs that their life imposes on society. I grew up loving a brother who I knew was in one of the categories of humans that the Nazis had determined possessed a lebens-unwertes Leben – a ‘lifeunworthy of life’ – a life whose cost to society exceeded its worth.
But that was years ago and far away, right? I grew up, moved to the United States for college, went to law school, then plunged into my life as an all-American working mum, practicing law and raising kids in the modern, progressive metropolis of Minneapolis, Minnesota. And then something happened to me, and my life changed, and in so many ways now, on so many days, I feel as though I am still living in the shadow of Mönchberg.
What happened was this. When I was about five months pregnant with my third child, Peter, I got a copy of this (pictured).
This is the karyotype of one of Petey’s cells that was floating in amniotic fluid extracted from my womb by a big needle during an amniocentesis. The arrow in the karyotype points out that Petey’s cells have three, rather than the usual two, copies of chromosome number 21. This indicates that he has an incurable chromosomal condition called trisomy 21, or Down syndrome, or, in the old-fashioned language of the Nazi regime, ‘mongolism’.
The medical professionals I was dealing with during a series of tests were not trying to find information to help me protect the health of my baby. Unlike the tests for anemia or HIV, there is little that can be done about the conditions that these tests were attempting to identify. These tests were offered for the purpose of bestowing upon me a special societal privilege to choose to abort my baby. That karyotype could have been my ticket to a guilt-free, utterly justified, absolutely legal abortion. If the technology had existed in the 1940s, that karyotype would almost certainly have been a ticket to Hadamar.
As someone who has always been pro-life, I did not accept these tests for the purpose of obtaining that ‘privilege’. I just wanted to know, partly in the vain hope that I could be reassured nothing was wrong, but also so that if I could not be reassured, I could at least be prepared. I am a nerd; if I was going to have a baby with Down syndrome, I wanted to read every possible book on the subject before the baby came.
Experiencing this testing sequence first hand, however, gave me some personal insights into the potentially pernicious effects of the prenatal testing process. The tests are all offered in the guise of ‘reassurance’, along with a battery of other tests. All of these tests carry with them the implication that the responsible mother can and should do something constructive with the results: take extra iron if she is found to be anemic; take AZT if she has HIV; or abort the baby if he or she has Down syndrome. If you lack the financial or other resources to raise a child with a disability, you could easily be swayed by an argument that the knowledge you now possess about the child gives you the responsibility to do something constructive to solve the problem, by aborting the child.
Now, this argument could obviously be a powerful incentive for a person to ‘choose’ to have an abortion. Going through this process personally made me acutely aware of its potential power. But this was not the aspect of the experience that really surprised me. What really surprised me was that people did not stop making this argument once I rejected it during the testing phase. When I started telling people that the baby I was expecting would have Down syndrome, I had colleagues ask me incredulously, ‘Why are you having this baby?’ While there was something rather creepy about being asked that question directly – by someone staring at that big belly of mine, while the baby kicked inside – it was still not too difficult for me to deal with. I was comfortable defending my position that I didn’t believe in abortion, that I didn’t think I did have any choice in this matter; I was still in familiar, pro-life territory.
But I left that familiar territory the moment that Petey was born, and I found, to my great surprise, that society still kept asking that question: Why did you have this baby? I have had people react with marked surprise when they hear that I knew Petey would have Down syndrome before he was born. Though they do not ask aloud, you can see the question in their eyes: ‘If you knew, why did you have the baby?’ What’s buried in that question, what’s buried deep in their eyes as they ask it, is the perception of my son as ‘a choice’ – specifically, my choice – rather than as a unique human being, rather than as a fully-fledged member of the human race.
What I see in their eyes is the lingering shadow of Mönchberg that sometimes keeps me awake at night. I worry that the joint availability of tests and abortion seems to be eroding societal consensus about our collective responsibility for vulnerable people – people with disabilities whose conditions were or could have been diagnosed prenatally, or even people born into difficult family situations or social structures. I am very frightened by the emerging attitude that if a woman exercises her ‘choice’ to have a child who can be identified in advance as ‘vulnerable’ for some reason, the woman herself bears the responsibility for dealing with that vulnerability. In other words, if the ‘cost’ of a certain life is going to be more than its ‘worth’, someone has to make up the deficit. The assumption seems to be that if you ‘choose’ to impose that cost on society by having a baby you could so easily have aborted, you should pay the price.
Stop Surrogacy Before it’s too late: Surrogacy doesn’t liberate us from biological constraints – it turns women’s bodies into factories.
What do Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ricky Martin and Nicole Kidman have in common? The answer — happily reported by celebrity site Glamour Magazine — is that all had babies with the help of surrogate mothers. And these stories are invariably accompanied by photos of the couples holding their babies and beaming with joy. Well, if you asked me, I ‘d answer rather differently — they are all participating in reproductive prostitution and child trafficking.
Surrogacy — or ‘contract pregnancy’ — involves a woman being either inseminated or having an embryo implanted in her uterus. When she gives birth nine months later, she surrenders the child to the commissioning parents — and almost always in exchange for money. Since the 1970s, over 25,000 babies have been born in the USA via surrogacy. But the practice is increasingly outsourced to countries like India, Ukraine, Thailand and Mexico. In India alone, the surrogacy industry is valued at over 450 million USD per year. Countries all over the world are faced with the question: ban or regulate surrogacy?
(Illustration by Daniel Gray)
The media mostly portrays surrogacy as a win-win situation: childless couples can fulfil their dream for a child, and poor women can earn money by helping others. Hello! magazine showcases Elton John saying that surrogacy “completes our family in the most precious and perfect way.” Vanity Fair features Ricky Martin and his twins, declaring: “I would give my life for the woman who helped me bring my sons into this world.” And Nicole Kidman comments: “Our family is truly blessed … No words can adequately convey the incredible gratitude that we feel for everyone … in particular our gestational carrier.” Martin and Kidman conspicuously avoid the word ‘mother’ when speaking about the women who bore children for them. The gratitude of the recipients of the surrogacy arrangements is paraded as success, but ultimately disguises the inherent power inequity in the arrangement: the parent is the one who pays, not the one who bears the child. Read more
Reject commercial surrogacy as another form of human trafficking
The practice of reproductive surrogacy is in the news in Australia because of the story of a Thai child, Gammy, a twin who was apparently abandoned by the buyers because he was sick. They took his healthy sister.
This story should not be seen as just an individual bad news story. It has much to tell us about the effects of commercial surrogacy. This industry is an offshoot of the very profitable reproductive technology industry, which created, through IVF, the possibility of persons buying children in the marketplace.
The result is that children can be rejected, left over or abandoned like the sofa that buyers decided was in the end not the right colour. Children have become goods to be traded.
Discussion of surrogacy usually revolves around the rights of the buyers and how the industry can be better regulated. The debate should be about whether such a harmful industry should be permitted at all. Read more
Baby Gammy has shown the need for debate on surrogacy
Dr Renate Klein
As the fallout from baby Gammy continues and Thailand moves to make commercial surrogacy illegal, calls are intensifying for Australia to legalise paid surrogacy with a ‘carefully designed system’ as columnist Julie Szego proposed on these pages last week.
As a critic of the IVF industry for three decades, my solution is very different. Rather than regulating a system that commodifies the resulting child and invariably uses women as “containers” for carrying and birthing a baby they are taught to say is not theirs, we need to focus on the demand for surrogacy and try to reduce it.
How is it that there are 100 or more couples who are now in understandable despair because they don’t know what’s happening to the Thai women carrying “their” babies, or to their frozen embryos in clinics that have been closed down? Who is facilitating couples – gay and straight – who are intent on their own genetic child and have the money to pay going baby shopping overseas? Read more
Dr Renate Klein is a feminist health researcher. She was Associate Professor in Women’s Studies at Deakin University until 2006.
All these young women were victims of acid attacks in India.
Rupa (right) has now designed her own fashion range. The Herald Sun has featured images from the shoot. It is just the best fashion photo shoot I think I’ve ever seen. Despite their suffering, multiple operations, the cruelty they have suffered, they appear radiant and determined to embrace life. Their courage shines and shames their abusers.
Indian designer Rupa, along with her friends Rita, Sonam, Laxmi and Chanchal modelled the clothing from her new range, Rupa Designs for photographer Rahul Saharan. All five women are the victims of acid attacks, which are very common in India.
In 2008, Rupa suffered extensive injuries after her stepmother threw acid in her face while she was sleeping.
“I always wanted to be a designer but after the attack there was a pause in my life,” the 22-year-old told the Daily Mail . “I was so insecure and embarrassed by my scars, I used to cover my face with a scarf,” she said.
“I always hung onto my dream but I never knew that one day it would be possible and I would be launching my own label.”
Rupa now works with the Stop Acid Attacks organisation, which helps survivors ease back into society.
If you are moved by what you have just seen and read, please decide right now to support Rupa to establish her own business to sell her lovely designs and support herself.
Our Goal is to rent a shop for Rupa in a decent locality in Delhi which Rupa can decorate as her boutique. We want to also provide her with the initial capital for her shop so that she can buy the equipment and employ other acid attack survivors to work with her.
Car parts and service chain Ultra Tune are facing a flood of complaints on social media in response to its sexist ‘We’re into rubber’ TV commercial. The BDSM themed ad for car tyres depicts two rubber-clad dominatrix women brandishing a whip and feigning sexual arousal as they caress the tyres, while a male employee smiles and nods to himself, signifying his enjoyment.
Ultra Tune’s Facebook page has become overrun with complaints by men and women who have seen the commercial, pledging to not have their car serviced at Ultra Tunes while women are depicted as “fetish objects” to sell products and services.
Ultra Tune’s sexist commercial has already made the list of Top Ten most complained about commercials this year, with at least twenty formal complaints made to the Advertising Standards Bureau for being ‘exploitative and degrading to women’, some noting the sexism already prevalent in the automotive industry, others the inappropriate time slot during ad breaks for sporting events and other seemingly family-friendly viewing times. In typical form, the ASB dismissed complaints, ruling that rubber clad dominatrix women were relevant to the product being sold.
Ultra Tune defended their commercial by saying “it did not include graphic nudity” and “the women were renumerated” for their work. While we are appreciative Ultra Tune managed to promote car accessories without graphic nudity, and super impressed they paid the women for their work, this is not good enough.
Ultra Tune have a history of using sexism to promote their services, including this 2011 commercial portraying women as dumb.
One woman, Jodie Swales, saw Ultra Tune’s “revolting” ad during the Sunday afternoon football game. The very next morning she made a phone call to Richard Coppock, Ultra Tune’s National Operations Manager to tell him what she thought of the ad. He admitted they had received many complaints, claiming he would address the situation.
After weeks of silence and ignored emails and upon seeing the ad was still being shown, Jodie sat down and emailed every Ultra Tune franchise in the country to tell them how the advertising demeaned women. Here are some of the surprising responses she received back:
“I agree completely with your comments and find almost all the ads produced to be highly offensive.”
“I apologize for the ad… I have also told head office it is a terrible ad and degrading to women so I totally agree with you.”
“All franchise owners are disgusted in the ad and we have asked for the ad to be taken off air.”
“I could not agree with you more, as a Franchise owner i am appalled at the current advertising [and I] complained to Ultra tune head office on day one.”
“We are doing are best to get the ad removed!”
“Many of the franchisees feel the same way as you.”
Jodie didn’t stop there- she launched a petition on change.org calling on Richard Coppock from Ultra Tune to withdraw the sexist and demeaning ad campaign, which also featured similar images on their website.
In an email response to her petition, Richard claimed, “This advertisement in question has and continues to receive mass media exposure and acclaim.” He also hides behind the absurd reasoning the Ad Standards Board used to dismiss the complaint: “Their depiction of wearing rubber outfits is seen to be relevant to the range of rubber tyre products offered by Ultra Tune Centres.”
Please sign Jodie’s petition and help us to send a message to Ultra Tune that sexism doesn’t sell.
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In this easy-to-read updated book, Steve Biddulph shares powerful stories and give practical advice about every aspect of boyhood.
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Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.