Friday, 31 May 2013

Henry Morgentaler: Canadian Abortion Rights Pioneer
Henry Morgentaler (right) with NDP leader Jack Layton (left), 2005,
Wikimedia Commons
Henry Morgentaler died this week at the age of 90. Morgentaler was a hero of Canada’s abortion rights movement. A medical doctor, he began giving safe, clean and relatively inexpensive abortions in his office in Montreal in the late 1960s, at a time when all abortions were illegal. He opened abortion clinics in Montreal, Toronto and elsewhere when abortions became legal but only under very restricted conditions: women had to go before a board of three doctors (usually all men, since there were very few women doctors in those days). He underwent numerous legal battles to enlarge women’s rights to abortion on demand, without the humiliation of going before three doctors for approval. Three juries in the province of Quebec refused to convict him of illegally providing abortions. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada outlawed all restrictions on abortions, although abortions are still provincially regulated and subject to doctors’ codes of ethics. During this long battle, Morgentaler even spent a brief stint in jail.
I remember well what it meant for women to have no rights whatsoever to abortion. I was an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal from 1965 to 1969.  From 1965 to 1967 I lived in McGill’s extremely strict women’s residence, Royal Victoria College, where there were curfews, no men were allowed in your room, and the woman in charge of us all was called the “warden.”  In my first year there, one of the girls down the hall from me was caught by police in a raid, in the middle of her abortion. The warden expelled her from the residence, which meant she was expelled from the university too, and her friends were told not to come back the next year.
Henry Morgentaler during a December 1983 freedom of
choice rally in Ottawa
Source: Vancouver Sun,

Later that year another girl I knew told me she was pregnant. I tried to help her by calling the local Unitarian Minister for information: he gave me Dr. Morgentaler’s name, which I passed on, but my friend didn’t follow up. Eventually she went for a back street abortion.
In 1968 another girl I knew needed an abortion. I went with her in a taxi to an address she had been given: she went into the house but came right back out again, saying the place was filthy. Then, fortunately, someone reminded me of Morgentaler again. My friend went to him instead: the price was $300, his clinic was clean and safe, and there was a nurse there to help. My friend came back with an expression of great relief on her face and nothing but praise for Morgentaler and his nurse.
I mention the price because Morgentaler was a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz who arrived in Canada in 1950. Occasionally I’ve heard or read accusations about how his clinics were dirty (not true) or about how he was in the abortion business to make money. These are common stereotypes about Jews, and it’s a shame to see the debate about abortion sullied by these untrue accusations.
I’m not happy that women still have to have abortions. I think abortion is a social tragedy, and I would much rather live in a world in which no woman or girl ever had to have an abortion.  Among other things, the more rights women have, and the more access both males and females have to sex education and birth control, the fewer unwanted pregnancies—hence the fewer demands for abortion. But we certainly don’t live yet in a world where all these conditions obtain, and even if we did, women are always subject to coerced sexual relations. Until we do, women need the right to abortion on demand.
 So I, for one, am extremely grateful not only for the clean, safe and relatively inexpensive abortion services Henry Morgentaler provided, but also for his willingness to engage in legal battles and even go to jail on behalf of women’s right to abortion. I know he didn’t do this alone: it took decades of feminist activity to obtain this right in Canada, and we are still in danger that it will be revoked. But I will always remember the relief my friend at McGill felt after her safe, clean, and compassionate treatment at Henry Morgentaler’s clinic in 1968.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Property Rights of West Bank Palestinians

Property Rights of West Bank Palestinians
A rather neglected aspect of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is Article 17,  “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others: No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” This is a right that the state of Israel has denied to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since 1967.

Israeli Separation Wall to West Bank. The graffiti is German for "I am a Berliner", a reference to US President John F. Kennedy's 26 June 1963 speech in Berlin where he expressed solidarity with West Berliners over the Berlin Wall which separated West and East Berlin (1961 to 1989), Wikimedia Commons
I’m interested in this problem because I am working on causes of the high rate of malnutrition among Palestinians, as part of my larger research project on the right to food (other case studies are North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela).  According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the percentage of people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories who were undernourished increased from 18 in 1990 to 31 in 2010; the percentage of people who suffered from food inadequacy (a measurement of food deficiency for normal physical activity) increased from 26.6 in 1990 to 42.4 in 2010.  One reason for this malnutrition is that Israeli authorities and Jewish settlers have taken over Palestinian farmlands in the West Bank.
Israeli and other Jews settle in the West Bank because of their beliefs in political Zionism, because they believe that the West Bank is actually Jewish holy land, or simply because housing is cheaper in the West Bank than in Israel proper. By 2011 it was estimated that 325,000 Jewish settlers lived in the West Bank. The Israeli government actively encourages these settlements, although it sometimes tears down ones that it considers illegal. For example, it offers tax exemptions, grants and loans to settlers.
These arbitrary settlements and expropriations mean that West Bank Palestinians enjoy no property rights. Without property rights, their farms, grazing lands, citrus and olive groves are routinely expropriated without any compensation. Subsistence cultivation is thus undermined. Land seizures also affect Palestinians who cultivate food for commercial purposes, exporting it and using the earnings to feed their families.
Since 2000 things have become worse, as Israel has built a wall to separate Israel—and illegally settled Jewish territory—from Palestinians. In 2004 the International Court of Justice declared it illegal for Israel to build this wall on Palestinian territory, but Israel paid no attention. The wall meanders through Palestinian territory, often cutting off Palestinians from their own farms. There’s also a “seam zone” between the legal borders of Israel and the wall, and Palestinians living in that zone are cut off from their land. Segregated Jewish-only settlement areas, and highways on which Jewish residents of the West Bank can travel but Palestinian residents can't, also take over land and cut off Palestinians from their farms.
Yet expropriation of private property by an occupying power is illegal except for military needs. The 1907 Hague Convention, Article 46, states “Private property cannot be confiscated.” Although the Israelis claim otherwise, The Hague conventions are part of international customary law, meaning that they are binding on all states. Nor is the Israeli argument that settlements improve Israel’s security, and are therefore legal, acceptable under international law, although many settlements are built on hilltops and thus serve the function of surveillance over Palestinian lands below.  
The 1949 Geneva Convention further outlaws destruction of property in the occupied area. Settlements and any purchase of land by settlers are illegal, even if the settlers purchase land from an individual who was ostensibly willing to sell. Moreover, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits transfers of part of the occupiers’ civilian population into the territory it occupies. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court describes “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” as a war crime. It also states that “the transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” is a war crime.  Israel, though, is not a party to the Rome Statute.
Some people think it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. It isn’t. Israel is a state: like any other state, it must obey international law. Many Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere, are opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its brutal treatment of Palestinians.
          For more on the right to own property, see my forthcoming “Reconsidering the Right to Own Property,” in Journal of Human Rights, vol. 12, no. 2 or 3, 2013. Or email me at for a copy. In this article my examples are Zimbabwe and Venezuela, not Palestine.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Magdalene Laundries: Forced Labor by the Irish Catholic Church (or was it Slavery?)

The Magdalene Laundries: Forced Labor by the Irish Catholic Church (or was it Slavery?)
This post is about what used to happen to young women who were thought to be, or in danger of becoming, promiscious. In Ireland, such young women were called "Magdalenes" and were locked up in Roman Catholic institutions.

When I was a teenager, there were “good” girls and “bad” girls. Bad girls had sex before marriage, and if they became pregnant they were often sent away in shame to have their babies in secret (this happened to a couple of women I know, now both professors). Or, the girl and the father were coerced into marriage. There was no welfare available then for unmarried mothers, so pregnant girls who didn’t marry normally had to give up their babies for adoption (abortion was illegal as well in those days, as was birth control for unmarried women). Really “bad” girls, if I remember correctly, were considered promiscuous and incorrigible, and some were institutionalized to keep them out of harm’s way. That was right here in southern Ontario, Canada, where I still live.

Magdalene Laundry in Ireland, Wikimedia Commons
 Three months ago in Ireland, on February 19, 2013, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) apologized to women who suffered a far worse fate than the “bad” girls who were around when I grew up in Canada. You can find his apology at the political apologies website that my research assistants and I maintain, at .

The Catholic Church of Ireland maintained institutions known as the Magdalene Laundries (Mary Magdalene was an important follower of Jesus Christ, but for centuries she was thought to have been a “fallen woman,” a repentant prostitute, and was pictured as such in much Western art: the fact that Jesus respected her was ignored by the same misogynistic Western culture). Girls and women were sent to live and work at the Magdalene Laundries if the authorities, either secular or Church, thought they had been, or were in danger of becoming, sexual deviants: that is, women who had sexual relations outside of marriage. Others were referred to the laundries because they had played truant from school or came from dysfunctional families. In general, the Laundries were a safe place to store women who didn’t conform to the restrictive social norms of Catholic Ireland.
I heard one survivor of incarceration in these laundries interviewed on As It Happens, a radio program of the Canadian Broadcasting Company. She was incarcerated in the laundries merely because she had a boyfriend and the Church thought she might have sexual relations with him outside of marriage. Apparently it didn’t occur to the Church that she and the boy were in love and might get married. She used to see her boyfriend out the window of the laundry but she couldn’t speak to him. She is one of about 800-1,000 women still in Ireland who are survivors of the Laundries.
The girls and women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries were forced to work all day long doing laundry for hotels, restaurants, and prisons. They weren’t paid; the money they made went to the Church. If they escaped, they were easily recognizable in their uniforms and would be returned to the Laundries, which were overseen by nuns. Not that the nuns would have benefitted much from this system either, since they had to turn the money over to the Church.
So this was undoubtedly forced labor. These girls and women were incarcerated against their will, they couldn’t escape, they had to work whether they wanted to or not, and they were not paid. The Irish government has recognized this and intends to pay them compensation, as well as erecting some sort of memorial to them. This is the right thing to do.
But I wonder if rather than referring to the inmates of the Magdalene Laundries as forced laborers, we shouldn’t call them slaves? The Forced Labor Convention of 1930 defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” This seems to describe the Magdalenes, who did not offer themselves voluntarily for unpaid work in the laundries.
The 1926 Slavery Convention, still the most relevant legal document, defines slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” The Catholic Church didn’t claim to own the Magdalene woman, but it did exercise de facto ownership. Not only were they forced to work without pay, some of the women spent their entire lives in the laundries, never released. The government, moreover, was complicit in their incarceration, handing them over to the authority of the Catholic Church. You might object that they weren’t sold, but being available for sale isn’t a necessary aspect of slavery; you can be enslaved without being part of the slave trade.
Nowadays, we know a lot about sex slavery and human trafficking, a huge problem in the globalized world and one of the worst consequences of poverty. The Magdalenes were enslaved to keep them away from sex, not to force them into it (though since everywhere else that people were institutionalized by the Church, in every country of the world,  a lot of sexual abuse went on, it probably did in the Laundries too). It’s not clear when forced labor morphs into slavery, but the treatment of the Magdalenes certainly raises the question.
There’s a great 2002 movie, the Magdalene Sisters, about the laundries. It’s fiction, but the DVD I saw it on included a documentary featuring some of the real Magdalene survivors. It’s useful to keep this shameful episode in Ireland in mind when we read about the treatment of “fallen” women in other parts of the world today.