It’s been a bad day for a woman’s right to privacy.

I had been working on a piece about the current compromises to a woman’s medical privacy. Some of this is because of technology, but mostly it’s because there are some really intrusive bastards out there who believe women (and their doctors) can’t be trusted to make their own decisions regarding their health. I wanted to take a little more time with it so I could be more detailed, and I’ll probably get back to it later, but today two things happened that forced me to speed things up.

The first thing that I found utterly disappointing was that in Arizona today, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law what has been referred to as the “Show Me Your Whore Pills” Law1: that any employer that identifies as a religious organization would be able to fire female employees for using prescription contraception, and would be able to deny contraception if they felt like it. If said woman is one of the 58% of all women who use prescription contraception for health reasons2, she’s got to open up her medical records to her employer and prove it. And did I mention that an employer can terminate an employee for using prescription contraception? Oh, I did? Well then, it’s worth mentioning again, because this whole this is just one big stupid idea. I can’t help but be reminded of the Lewis Black’s riff on how the Republicans are the part of bad ideas, and the Democrats are the party of no ideas.

What I find truly strange about this bill is all the new variables that open up. If a woman works for a big company, who are they expected to open up their medical records to? The CEO? Human resources? Their immediate supervisor? Therein also lies the potential that some suit the woman has never met who gets decide on her healthcare and her employment status based on their own morality. This law, in the hands of evil people, has the capacity to create a new kind of Gattaca-like sexual harassment. Not to mention a new market for extortionists and blackmailers.

The other big piece of bad news is the stripping down of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as it passed the House today. All the provisions that offered protection to immigrant women, women on Native American reservations, LGBT men and women—POOF! Gone! I guess to the House Republicans, women from other lands aren’t really women, or women whose ancestors were here before all those white guys, nor women who like women. Ok, I got my sarcastic hyperbole out of my system, so now I’m going to let the fabulous Valerie Jarrett explain what this really means3:

“The passage of the Violence Against Women Act nearly two decades ago was an historic moment for America’s women and girls. The law gave women new legal protections that help ensure their safety… The bill [the Senate] approved would address the high rates of domestic violence committed against Native American women, ensure that LGBT victims have access to services, and make college campuses safer places to live and study… Unfortunately, the bill being considered in the House of Representatives today would do the opposite. It…rolls back existing protections, leaving women less safe. For example, if this bill were to become law, abusive partners would have an easier time using immigration status as a tool to control and further abuse victims. It would make it harder for immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute criminals. It would eliminate confidentiality that allows many women to leave their abusive relationships, without fear of retaliation. In other words, the bill going through the House right now would leave more women at risk.”

Thanks, Val! The italics are mine, and that, for me, is probably the scariest part: It would eliminate confidentiality for women trying to leave abusive relationships. When I read that, I felt my face morph into the sort of expression that a puppy has upon discovering their reflection in a mirror for the first time: am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Is my face going to freeze this way? What could possibly be the motivation behind this? Well, it turns out, it’s pretty damn sinister.

Timothy Johnson, a former vice chair of the North Carolina Republican Party who was convicted of domestic battery in 1996, signed an anti-VAWA letter as part of a group curiously named Concerned Women for America4, which read: “…Further, this legislation continues to use overly broad definitions of domestic violence. These broad definitions actually squander the resources for victims of actual violence by failing to properly prioritize and assess victims. Victims who can show physical evidence of abuse should be our primary focus.” So, none of this namby-pamby emotional distress—women only need protection when they’ve had their toes or their nose broken, or punched in the breasts, or had furniture broken over their backs, which is the exact beating that Johnson dished out to his now ex-wife, Ofelia Felix-Johnson. In 1998, Johnson was arrested again for beating her and their son (charges were dropped because Felix-Johnson failed to make the court appearance). By 2009, they were divorced and she was living in Nebraska, when he ran for his vice chair seat on the North Carolina Republican Party. In his campaign, he forged a letter, claiming that she said:

“I have been made aware that my ex-husband is a candidate for the job of Vice Chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party which I whole heartedly support and were I a resident of that state I would vote for him. It has also come to my attention that people in the Republican Party are trying to use potential issues from our marriage in an attempt to smear Tim’s reputation and chances to win the race. When we took our marriage vows, we like so many including President Reagan, former speaker Newt Gingrich or even John McCain hoped that the union would last. Differences sometimes occur and words and actions may happen which require a separation; however, the love and regard for the people involved doesn’t change. My ex-husband has met his obligations to me and our children, our relationship is cordial and I support whatever positive endeavors…Tim may choose to engage in.”

However, in an interview with in 2010, she said, “I absolutely did not say that. This was not done with my consent, and I didn’t even know about it. I didn’t appreciate him putting my name out there when I had nothing to do with it.”5 So, in addition to being a convicted wife-beater, he’s also a big, fat liar. Just the sort person I want my members of Congress to listen to when making big decisions that will impact millions of people.

But wait! There’s more! And it gets freakier: one of the other signatures on the letter signed by Johnson is Peter Cook, director of Stop Abuse and Violent Environments (SAVE). Despite their very nice name, SAVE is actually a lobbying front for a Russian mail-order bride business. (I told you it got freaky!) SAVE’s treasurer, Natasha Spivack, is also the founder of Intimate Encounters, which she began in 1993 to arrange marriages between Russian women and U.S. men. According to the Huffington Post, one of their marriages went horribly wrong6:

“One of the Russian brides matched by Encounters International sued the firm, claiming that she was beaten by her American husband, that the company failed to properly screen candidates and neglected to tell her about a law allowing immigrants to escape abusive marriages without fear of automatic deportation. A jury decided in favor of the Russian bride and awarded her $434,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The case was affirmed upon appeal.”

Spivack claims that the bride was actually committing immigration fraud and was never actually beaten by her husband. She cites this as the reason for lobbying for the dropping privacy protections of immigrant victims of domestic violence. In her statement on SAVE’s website, she describes a conspiracy of VAWA advocates and money-hungry immigration attorneys out to extort American.7 Okay, I totally buy money-hungry lawyers, but everything else she claims seems rather far-fetched to me. If it turns out this the only coupling that went sour for Spivack in her nearly twenty years of international matchmaking, that’s actually a damn good track record. Not to mention, in twenty years on the job, professional hiccups are inevitable. It’s not, to me, a legitimate reason to abolish the privacy protection of the women who really need it. My point is that aside from what appears to be an isolated incident, Spivack presents no other rationale.

One last thing: There is someone out there who gets it: Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore (D). Speaking on the House floor this morning she recounted her own personal experience8:

“…In this motion, we’re simply trying to reestablish…in this bill, that we’re hoping the majority…will greatly enhance the safety of all women. This motion simply protects the victim’s identity to avoid retaliation, even the loss of life, and make sure it’s not weakened as compared to current law. Now, we’re going to be told the Manager’s Amendment does that, but it does not. Under current law, abused women are able to seek help and come forward to authorities under the condition of confidentiality. But H.R. 4970, as an amendment, does many things…For example, it delays the protection for battered victims by staying adjudications before pending investigations or prosecutions are completed. It creates a negative inference against the victim if law enforcement did not open an investigation, or prosecutors fail to prosecute the perpetrator…I can tell you that…current law provides a very delicate balance between the due process rights of the accused and the confidentiality of accusers.

“The fact that the bill was amended in this way [stimulates] me to remember an incident in my own life, where the best of rights was tipped in favor of the abuser…I got into an automobile with a man I thought was a personal friend to go get some fried chicken. And he pulled in behind some vacant buildings, raped me, [and] choked me almost to death. And when I went to the hospital, I was encouraged, by an advocate—this was in the 1970s, long before there was a VAWA, long before there was a Rape Shield Act.*…I took him to court, and indeed, I was put on trial, because…I had to prove that I was a victim, that I was not being fraudulent in my accusations…They brought up how I was an unwed mother with a baby—that maybe I seduced him. They talked about how I was dressed…they carried me through all kind[s] of bureaucratic hoops and changes and ultimately, he was found to be not guilty. Although I did everything I was told to do in terms of prosecuting this.

“I cannot stress the solemn nature of this issue*…the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is trying to escape her perpetrator, when she’s trying to do something about it, when she’s trying to turn her life—hers and her children’s—around. And when the perpetrator is given the tools that this bill gives him, to have an abuser’s rights prevail over the rights of the victim, she will have the cell phone in her hand, but she will lose her life anyway, because she cannot escape this man. The Manager’s Amendment does not fix this.”

(The Manager’s Amendment that she is referring to was added during House deliberation to fix the confidentiality problem, which it clearly doesn’t.9)

So, this watered-down, messed-up bill has passed the House and faces a likely veto by President Obama. This puts us in a very weird position. Do we want a crappy VAWA or none at all?

In closing, I can’t help being reminded of the Sleater-Kinney song, “#1 Must-Have:”

The number one must have

Is that we are safe

Watch me make up my mind

Instead of my face

I guess that says it all, doesn’t it? I believe that privacy is one of the things that keeps us safe, and when that’s compromised, our health and safety is compromised.


  1. Veracity Stew:
  2. Guttmacher Institute:
  3. Valerie Jarrett, Huffington Post:
  4. Right Wing Watch:
  6. Huffington Post:
  7. Stop Abuse and Violent Environments (SAVE):
  8. Gwen Moore Recounts Personal Story of Domestic Violence during Motion to Recommit on VAWA:
  9. Think Progress:

* I want to clear up something because I think it’s important: there is no “Rape Shield Act.” Many states have rape shield laws which protect a victim’s identity from the public, allowing them to file charges as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.” However, if the victim’s true identity appears in court documents as a matter of public record, the media is protected under the First Amendment to publish the victim’s name if they wish (per Florida Star v. B.J.F.) without civil recourse, but most media outlets do not as a courtesy unless charges are dropped.

**In this ellipse, Rep. Moore makes a reference to a particular case, but the sound quality is off in that part, and I’m not getting everything, so I’m just jumping to what I can hear.

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