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Penetrating Decrees

It has been ages since I last wrote a blog, but the recent outbreak of women’s reproductive issues in this election cycle has brought me back. For starters, we have the national debate on whether Catholic-led hospitals and other employers should have to comply with the health reform law requiring insurance providers to offer birth control free of charge. It’s about conscience and separation of church and state; I get it.

Next up, we have my own state of Virginia voting on the so-called personhood bill, which would give unborn children “at all stages of development,” including embryos, the same rights available to “other persons,” as laid out in Virginia and Federal law. That bill essentially defines life as beginning at conception. Saturday Night Live recently mocked this bill, asking, “What’s next? Life begins at last call? Life begins when you click send on your Match.com profile?”

But the bill that has most recently incited debate in this onslaught is Virginia’s bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. The bill is poised to pass the legislature this week, although a vote keeps getting delayed as protesters rally outside Richmond’s Capitol Square.

If you have been living under a rock the past few weeks, allow me to catch you up. The bill, which you can read here, requires the doctor to perform fetal ultrasound imaging on any woman seeking an abortion and to give her the opportunity to see the image and listen to the heartbeat. The woman must then sign a document that she did or did not look at the image, and the image is required to be placed in her permanent medical history. In addition, the law requires the woman wait at least 24 hours after this ultrasound is performed before she can have the abortion. (Mercifully, an exception is made for women who live more than 100 miles from their provider, in which case they must wait 2 hours.)

ImageI am not interested in having a debate about whether abortion should be legal. That is not what is up for discussion in this case, though the lawmakers’ insistence on making it as difficult and as embarrassing as possible is telling enough. What has made this bill so radioactive is that it strips the patient of consent to a medically unnecessary and highly invasive procedure. Abortions are primarily performed in the early stages of a pregnancy, and for that reason, the “jelly on the belly” type of ultrasound is insufficient. Instead, in most of these cases, the bill would require the woman to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a probe is inserted into the vagina. Talk about upping the ante!

Though the bill does not even pretend to be anything other than a thinly veiled attempt to limit abortions, there is some medical basis for performing the ultrasound. In fact, most abortion providers already routinely perform the procedure. The ultrasound allows the doctor to determine the fetus’s age, which is very important because not only do fetuses more than about 12 weeks along require different medical treatment, but they also require different legal treatment.

So what is the big deal then? I return to the statement that the bill requires denying consent to a medically unnecessary and highly invasive procedure. If a woman is three weeks along in her pregnancy and her doctor agrees that there is no need for an ultrasound, shouldn’t that be the end of it? Why does she then have to be subjected to vaginal penetration? Yes, that’s what we are talking about here, and if you are uncomfortable reading about it, imagine how the patient might feel.

Opponents of the bill have garnered attention recently for likening it to state-sponsored rape. Now, I agree that that rhetoric is inflammatory and insensitive to victims of violent crime. However, the FBI updated its definition of rape just last month, and its new definition is: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” You tell me what part of the Virginia ultrasound bill does not fit that definition.

In addition, the Virginia bill does not allow any exception to the ultrasound mandate in cases of rape and incest, so if a rape victim seeks an abortion, she could once again be subjected to vaginal penetration against her wishes and with no medical purpose.

Virginia is not the first state to raise this issue; in fact, it would be the eighth state to pass similar legislation. In Texas, doctors challenged the law because they do not want to have to read from a script and make statements that are not medically indicated. When the physician is required to do a procedure that is not in the patient’s best interest and is not recommended by the physician, there is a fundamental breakdown in the doctor and patient relationship. Trust is lost, and in some cases, the doctor is forced to compound emotional distress.

One facet of this ordeal that I find fascinating is the double talk from conservative and Republican lawmakers. In the issue requiring Catholic institutions’ insurers to provide contraceptives, opponents argue that it is about conscience… that the institution should be able to follow its own morals and beliefs without the government interfering and forcing it to fund a certain aspect of care. Yet when it comes to this ultrasound bill, the government is attempting to force a private institution not to pay for something but to actually perform a procedure, and the same opponents of the contraceptives are suddenly in favor of government mandates for care.

Virginia’s governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, had stated earlier this year that he would sign the bill if it came across his desk. Now that the state legislature is poised to pass the bill, McDonnell has backed off a bit. At this point, the governor’s office is only committing to reviewing the bill. For whatever reason, McDonnell’s name has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, and he has been campaigning for Mitt Romney this season. Many political analysts believe that signing this law into effect in the midst of the current political environment would be toxic to McDonnell’s vice presidential aspirations. Then again, we have a guy named Rick Santorum leading the Republican primary polls, so maybe this is what Americans want after all.

What do you think? Does this bill take the desire to limit abortions too far or is it medically justified? Does it amount to state-sponsored rape or is that preposterous? What punishment does the father of the fetus have to be subjected to before the woman can get an abortion? Please, share your thoughts, questions, and opinions on the topic. I’d love to hear your view!


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I was born and raised in North Carolina, where tobacco has been king for centuries. Driving through Pitt County, it’s nearly impossible not to pass a tobacco field and note the progress of the crop, whether it looks healthy, and even how it smells.

No one in my immediate family smokes, but tobacco has benefited us all. My maternal grandfather worked for a tobacco company, traveling often between North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida. He provided for his wife and six children on his tobacco salary. Tobacco money put my mother and her siblings through college. Tobacco money helped fund every school I went to, from kindergarten to college. Both of my parents were in public education, so taxes from tobacco money, to be sure, helped pay their salaries and put my sister and me through school.

I raise these points because it’s easy to forget that the tobacco industry brings in a lot of money that can do a lot of good to people who work and live in its economic centers. North Carolina is the United States’ number one tobacco producer. R.J. Reynolds (the second-largest tobacco firm) and Lorrilard (the third-largest) are headquartered in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina, respectively. I don’t know where North Carolina would be without tobacco.

But we might soon learn.

More than 25 years ago, the federal government mandated labels on packs of cigarettes warning of the dangers and health risks of smoking. I fully agree that these text labels are helpful in spreading the word that cigarettes can cause cancer, emphysema, and other serious health problems. The public deserves to know the dangers of what it is consuming. Even something as small as my daily multivitamin contains a written warning label about iron poisoning in 6-year-olds.

But in June, the government unveiled nine new images it intends to mandate be put on cigarette packs starting in October 2012. As you might imagine, the images are gruesome and depict some of the potential results of smoking (have a look). This week, five tobacco companies filed a lawsuit against the FDA alleging that the graphic warning labels infringe on their First Amendment rights. I don’t think people should be smoking a pack a day, but I’m inclined to agree with the tobacco companies here.

The government will require cigarette packs to use one of the nine images on a full 50 percent of its label, and it will carry the phone number 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Since when does the government require a legal product to use its own packaging to urge prospective buyers not to purchase it? The text warning labels are one thing, but the images do seem to go above and beyond to actually discourage citizens from buying a product. The government is directly advocating the demise of the product itself.

Which begs the question, if the government is so intent on ridding America of cigarette smokers, why not just ban cigarettes? It certainly has the power to make products illegal, though it didn’t work out so well during Prohibition. And if the federal government wants to jump on its high horse and try to save American lives and reduce American tax dollars being spent on medical problems, why not go after the leading cause of death in this country—heart disease?

If these graphic warning labels of lung cancer and throat disease are fair for cigarettes, why not slap a picture of open heart surgery onto the container for McDonald’s french fries? And no need to stop there. If you want to buy a car without the best safety features, you’ll have to look at images of people thrown against a tree with their head split open. If you want to buy a handgun or bullets, better have a peek at revolting gunshot wounds. Want to take that anti-depression medication with possible side effects of suicide? First you’ll have to look at someone who slit her wrists or jumped out of a 40-story building and went splat on the concrete. What’s the difference?

Ultimately, for me, the issue is that the product is legal, and there is such a thing as overstepping when informing the public about possible or probable side effects. If the government wants to prevent all people from smoking, then make a law. Otherwise, the written warning labels speak for themselves, just as they do on other potentially harmful products in the marketplace.

The government has projected that the graphic warning labels will reduce the number of smokers in this country by more than 200,000 in the first year of implementation. This could save a lot of lives; so could banning flour and sugar. But is that what America is about?

Last I checked, people are informed and then are able to make their own decisions about how to live their lives and which risks to take on. Now, who is paying the health care bills for all of these smokers filing up the hospitals is another blog altogether, but again, it’s no different than those with heart disease and diabetes running up the tab as well. And, to be frank, overpopulation in this world of limited resources is likely a bigger problem than all the rest.

So having said all that, what do you think about the new graphic warning labels? Fair or foul on the government’s part? Would you like to see them implemented on other harmful products? I’m interested to know what other people think because I’m starting to sound like a conservative, and we all know that can’t be right….

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If I asked you to define religion, what would you say? Would you define it as a system of belief and worship in a supernatural power or god? Perhaps you would insist that a religion explains the origin and purpose of the universe. Would you describe it as having devotional and ritual observances, and does it require a moral code and a philosophy? As one of the most enduring, popular, and significant topics in society, you would think we could define it cleanly and uniquely. Our inability to do so promises to stir trouble, especially in our legal system.

Take, for example, Ariana Iacono, a 14-year-old freshman in Clayton, North Carolina (about 15 miles southeast of Raleigh). At least, she is supposed to be a freshman at Clayton High School, but she keeps getting suspended in this young school year. Ariana has a small stud ring in her nose and has insisted on wearing it to school. Unfortunately for her, Clayton High School’s dress code forbids the facial piercing. Rather than accepting that rule and taking the nose ring out at school, Ariana asked for a religious exemption (which she was denied).

So, what religion views wearing a nose ring as a form of worship? I’m glad you asked. The Church of Body Modification claims about 3,500 members nationwide (roughly 20 of which are in North Carolina). The Church is federally recognized and boasts a clergy, a statement of beliefs, and a formal process for accepting new members. Perhaps the group itself can best describe its creed:

The Church of Body Modification represents a collection of members practicing ancient and modern body modification rites. We believe these rites are essential to our spirituality. Practicing body modification and engaging in body manipulation rituals strengthen the bond between mind, body, and soul. By doing so, we ensure that we live as spiritually complete and healthy individuals. (http://uscobm.com/)

In addition to recognizing facial piercings as a spiritual act, some Church members practice suspension, the act of suspending a human body from hooks that have been put through body piercings. Other methods of body modification include tongue-splitting, ear-lobe extending, sub-dermal implants, and branding or scarring. And while the church identifies itself as a religion, it is not associated with a deity, and it allows its members to practice other religions. Some members identify as Christians, Buddhists, and Wiccans.

Now that you know a bit more about the Church of Body Modification, what do you think of Ariana Iacono (a member of the Church) asking for a religious exemption to wear her nose ring?

The Johnston County school system does have an exemption in its dress code for religious, spiritual, or cultural reasons, but the Clayton High School principal said he researched the religion and did not believe Ariana’s stud was necessary. Johnston County Schools spokeswoman Terri Sessmons said that Ariana Iacono failed to meet every single point of a multi-count criteria for a religious exemption. Those criteria include a copy or citation of recognized religious text, a written statement by a religious authority, and specific examples of sincerity of the student’s religious beliefs.

Ariana’s mother, Nikki Iacono, claims that her daughter found solace in her nose piercing. “She had been abused as a kid, as a young kid, for several years. She struggled with self esteem and self worth. This was for her a symbolic representation of reclaiming her beauty and her self esteem…. It had a lot of meaning behind it, which is why I stood behind her,” she said.

Apparently, the school offered to let Ariana wear a retainer in the hole while she is at school, to prevent the hole from closing up so soon after she got it pierced. However, the mother said she is worried about infection from the cheap and porous plastic.

So far, Ariana has been hit with one, three, and five-day suspensions, and if she returns tomorrow with the ring still in, she faces a 10-day suspension and a recommendation to an alternative school. The consequences are real. This is no way to begin your four-year high school career when you hope to get into college, as Ariana says she does.

Why the battle then? I will be the first to admit that a rule banning a tiny nose ring at school is probably a pretty dumb rule. The ring is not hurting anyone and it likely is not distracting anyone. But school systems are allowed to and must draw the line somewhere, and Clayton High School has drawn the line here. The rule was made clear, and Ariana (with the support of her 32-year-old mother) continues to willfully break it. Besides, they don’t even allow prayer in school.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which the Iaconos have contacted for help, piercings have not been considered by the courts to be protected speech by the First Amendment. “Like a political T-shirt, piercings are non-verbal communication, but, unlike words on a shirt, they don’t convey a specific message and are, therefore, not seen as protected speech. They are also seen as a possible disruption or health risk.” (ACLU on dress codes here)

But Ariana’s case is different. She’s not asking to wear her nose ring based on protected speech, but based on protected religion. And members of the Church of Body Modification might disagree with the statement that piercings are not conveying a specific message.

I think the most intriguing aspect of this case is the war to define religion. If Ariana had asked for an exemption based on Hindu beliefs or Jewish customs, I imagine she would have been granted it quite easily. But because she belongs to a church that many find strange and dubious (though federally recognized), she was turned down. That’s not to say that she should have been granted the exemption, but when the school system is determining what is a justifiable religion, we are headed down a slippery slope that leads to falling off a cliff.

And what to think of the polytheistic approach? The Church of Body Modification allows its members to be members of other faiths. They claim that many members profess to be Christian, but the Old Testament strictly forbids body modification:

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28)

Certainly Judaism would be mutually exclusive with the Church of Body Modification. Of course, society has grown lenient on many of the religious texts’ teachings and decrees. We choose and grab the parts of the Bible or the Koran or whatever it may be that are convenient for our lives. This isn’t exactly a new concept.

But what about this 14-year-old girl who is standing up for what she believes in? Do you think she is doing the right thing, whether you agree with her belief or not? Do you think she has a legitimate claim to the religious exemption or that she is being denied such exemption based on the suspect nature of her professed faith? Even as I use the word faith, I must hesitate. Do we need to start thinking of religion in broader terms?

Personally, I think Ariana Iacono is wrong. Was she right to challenge the system and ask for an exemption? Absolutely. She has every right to do that, and she has a case. However, she was denied that exemption, and the rule is clear. If you want to go to Johnston County public schools, you have to take the ring out. There are outlined criteria that must be met in order to qualify for the exemption, and she did not meet them. At this point, she is only hurting herself. And what is she being taught? That the rules do not apply to her? Where are the responsibility, maturity, and respect for authority? In the real world, your employer is probably going to want you to take that nose ring out also.

But what if Ariana had met the criteria for exemption? Would they have granted it to her, or would they still have denied it based on the questionable nature of the so-called religion? In that case, what do you think they should do? After all, the Church of Body Modification is legally recognized by the federal government. And why is the federal government in the business of officially recognizing religions anyway? And if they recognize something as different as this Church, at some point, the definition of religion could become so diluted that just about everything could be considered religion. Where would that leave the separation of church and state?

Because honestly, the Church of Body Modification sounds as much like a religion as a book club or a sports fanatic. And at least Clemson football worshipers have a temple (Memorial Stadium) and a large congregation that tithes a good percentage of its income.

So, now it’s your turn. What do you think of the school’s decision to continually suspend Ariana? Do you think she has a legitimate case? What are your thoughts on the definition of religion? All opinions and comments are encouraged and appreciated. Thanks!

** Update: Ariana came to school on Tuesday with her nose ring and was promptly suspended again, for 10 days this time.

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On the melanoma.com website, a sidebar asks “Am I at Risk?” This is how the short questionnaire goes for me:

Do you have a family history of melanoma? Yes.

Have you had one or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child or teenager? Yes.

Do you have fair skin and light eyes? To say I have fair skin is like… well, yes.

Do you frequently spend time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. without skin protection? Aha! No, I am cooped up in an office.

Do you have many freckles? Ugh, yes.

If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions, you may be at risk.

So answering yes to four out of five, I’m feeling pretty at risk. What about you?

I am a pale person. I have come to accept this fact of my life. There was a period in my mid-20s when I did not accept this and worked very hard to keep a tan. I am one of those rare red-headed people who can actually obtain a tan, but after a mole on my side turned up scaly and weird, I went to the dermatologist and we had a heart to heart. In more professional terms, she basically said to me, “Allison, you’re being an idiot. Don’t go outside.”

I tanned, of course, because I felt it made me look better. I was in it for the vanity. I still feel I am more attractive when my skin is darker, and I’d say a majority of people agree that tan skin is better looking than pale skin. Also, a tan body looks thinner than a pale body. These are facts.

So, it’s no wonder that a lot of people insist on maintaining a level of tan that is unhealthy for them. Women are especially guilty of this, many of my friends included. Some even frequent tanning salons to keep their tans constant and even.

But with unambiguous evidence that ultraviolet rays—from the sun or an indoor tanning bed—cause cancer, at what point does health trump beauty? At what point do we look at tanning as a pleasurable practice that can actually kill us? In other words, when does tanning become the tobacco industry?

Well, July 1, 2010, if you ask the federal government. On that date, a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning salons went into effect as part of the health care overhaul. If you are not familiar with the tax, which was substituted into the bill at the eleventh hour instead of a tax on plastic surgeries, here is the Cliff’s Notes version:

  • The 10 percent tax applies only to services that use ultraviolet radiation with wavelengths in air from 200 to 400 nanometers. It does not include spray tans or airbrushing, such as Mystic Tan.
  • Gyms and fitness centers with tanning services are exempt, as are medically-related UV services conducted in doctors’ offices, such as phototherapy to treat skin conditions and seasonal affective disorder.
  • The tax is collected when you pay for the service or package, not when the service is rendered. If you are buying packages that combine UV services with non-UV services, the salon should tax at a rate below 10 percent.

As you can imagine, the tanning industry is less than pleased. The text on the web site repealtantax.com reads:

This tax was not drafted by congressional staff and did not go through the normal legislative vetting process or any committee consideration. As a result, it is poorly drafted, will be extremely difficult to collect and will harm thousands of small businesses and affect millions of consumers, mostly working and middleclass women.

What is next? Are these same special interests going to force the government to tax us for going to the beach and then subsidize sunscreen?

Join the owners, employees and customers of the indoor tanning industry nationwide calling on Congress and the President to repeal this regressive and punitive tax. (http://www.repealtantax.com)

I can certainly understand where they are coming from. Adding a 10 percent surcharge to almost the entire product line of a business is destined to hurt—and in a recession, no less. And that’s kind of the idea. Sure, the tax is projected to generate about $2.7 billion to help pay for the health care bill (not much when the price tag is an estimated $940 billion), but I think the end goal of the tax is to discourage people from tanning altogether. It’s the same logic for taxing cigarettes and alcohol.

Last year, a report sponsored by the World Health Organization reclassified tanning beds into the highest cancer risk category—“carcinogenic to humans.” The category includes tobacco smoke, asbestos, benzene, and ionizing radiation, among others. The report, published in the journal Lancet Oncology last summer, said that the risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent when use of tanning beds starts before age 30. Yes, 75 percent!

So why do people continue to pay money to increase their risk of cancer? Because they are in it for the sexy, as we all know. I was interested in tanning for the same reason, until I got a big wake-up call. But try telling a 16-year-old girl who is three weeks away from the prom that she is going to regret this someday.

Some 30 or so states require parental consent for anyone under 18 to use an indoor tanning facility, but if the mothers and fathers are buying tanning packages for themselves, it’s hard to think they aren’t going to do the same for their teenagers. Tanning is a culture, and if your mother thinks it’s important to be bronze, she’s probably ingraining it in your head as well.

I often hear people boast about how easily they tan, and I’m sure it is not as unhealthy for them to be tan as it is for me. But that does not mean it is healthy. A tan is the skin’s way of saying it’s injured. It produces melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin and helps to protect underlying tissues from further harm. The skin’s DNA is also injured and the damage accumulates over time, increasing the risk of skin cancers. Overexposure to the sun is bad for you, no matter how you slice it. A tan is your skin’s way of telling you it has been overexposed.

Knowing this, do you think the new tax on tanning beds is a step in the right direction, or do you think it has unfairly singled out a subset of the beauty industry? Would you vote to repeal it? Or perhaps you would vote to ban indoor tanning salons altogether?

Before I wrap this up, I would like to mention a fringe, yet fascinating, reaction to the tanning tax. Back in March, Doc Thompson, while filling in for Glenn Beck on his radio show, had this magnificent point to make:

For years, I’ve suggested that racism was in decline and yeah, there are some, you know, incidents that still happen with regards to racism, but most of the claims I’ve said for years, well, they’re not really real. But I realize now that I was wrong. For I now too feel the pain of racism. Racism has been dropped at my front door and the front door of all lighter-skinned Americans. The health care bill the president just signed into law includes a 10 percent tax on all indoor tanning sessions starting July 1, and I say, who uses tanning? Is it dark-skinned people? I don’t think so. I would guess that most tanning sessions are from light-skinned Americans. Why would the President of the United States of America—a man who says he understands racism, a man who has been confronted with racism—why would he sign such a racist law? Why would he agree to do that? Well now I feel the pain of racism. (Listen here)

Yep, that happened. And Thompson was not alone in his sentiments. Rush Limbaugh and many commenters on a Washington Post story agreed (Find it here).

Do you think the tanning tax is racist? More importantly, will the tax be useful in paying for the health care bill and for diminishing the incidence of skin cancer? Do you think anyone who tans indoors is going to care about a 10 percent tax? Are you at all concerned about your own risk of skin cancer? Please feel free to share your thoughts!

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Veiled Threat

Over the past few weeks, I have rededicated myself to working out and staying fit. It is pretty easy for me because I don’t have any children to take care of or a garden to tend to after work, and the gym in my building is literally an elevator ride away. I don’t even have to go outside to get to it. While I was working out the other day (and turning red and dripping with sweat), I noticed another girl on the elliptical machine who was wearing a headscarf and was fully covered except her hands and face. I thought to myself, “Wow. If I had to wear all that just to exercise…,” let’s just say I would not be exercising.

Many Muslim women in the United States wear the headscarf (or hijab) in public because modesty is important in their faith. Women may show their hair, arms, and legs up to their knee in front of other women; however, our building’s gym is a co-ed facility. But this particular woman was not wearing the face veil that some Muslim women wear. I can only imagine how difficult working out would be in that case.

I raise this point because in Washington, DC, Arlington, and basically all of northern Virginia, I see Muslim women in all levels of cover all the time. I was in Subway a couple of weeks ago, and of the seven people eating there, I was the only one not wearing a headscarf.

But in Europe, governments in Belgium, France, Spain, and Switzerland are cracking down on which Muslim coverings are allowed in public. Most of the laws being discussed focus on the face veil, sometimes referred to as a burqa. (The word is also used to describe the full body covering, but Afghanistan uses burqa to mean full-face veil, while North Africa uses the term naqib.)

Today, France’s lower house of parliament is supposed to vote on banning any veil that covers the face, including the burqa. The measure, if passed, would still need to go to the French Senate for a vote in the fall. A survey found that French citizens back the ban by more than four to one. Similar majorities in Spain, Britain, and Germany support a ban. Italy and Turkey have had bans on the face veil for quite some time.

According to France’s proposed bill, wearing the full-face veil in “public places” (schools, hospitals, restaurants, public transit, and so on) would be punished with a fine of 150 Euros ($190) plus a citizenship course, presumably on why the veil is unfit for French culture. Forcing a woman to wear the veil, however, would be punishable by a year in prison or a $19,000 fine.

In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, “We are an old nation united around a certain idea of human dignity, and in particular of a woman’s dignity, around a certain idea of how to live together…. The full veil that hides the face completely harms those values, which are so fundamental to us, so essential to the republican compact.”

Arguments supporting the ban are numerous. The most common seems to be that the face veil is a security issue. If you can’t see someone’s face or facial expressions, it severely affects communication and understanding. It also hides someone’s identity, and in a world of security cameras, I can certainly appreciate this concern. And surely a woman should be required to show her face in a driver’s license or passport.

A second common argument against the burqa is that it is a symbol of male domination and religious oppression. In some Muslim cultures, a woman is not even allowed to leave the house without a male relative to escort her. The French seem to be most affected by this notion, and Sarkozy even said in 2007 that “France will not abandon the women who are condemned to the burqa.” Many people find it so difficult to believe that any woman would voluntarily wear such garb, and they therefore write the burqa off as something a woman must be forced or coerced to wear.

In an op-ed for the May 4, 2010, New York Times, mayor Jean-François Copé of Meaux, France, defended his country’s proposed ban:

The visibility of the face in the public sphere has always been a public safety requirement. It was so obvious that until now it did not need to be enshrined in law. But the increase in women wearing the niqab, like that of the ski mask favored by criminals, changes that. We must therefore adjust our law, without waiting for the phenomenon to spread. …

In both France and the United States, we recognize that individual liberties cannot exist without individual responsibilities. This acknowledgment is the basis of all our political rights. We are free as long as we are responsible individuals who can be held accountable for our actions before our peers. But the niqab and burqa represent a refusal to exist as a person in the eyes of others. The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility. (Full opinion here)

Do you agree with France and the other European nations banning the face veil? Do you think the arguments made here supersede a person’s right to wear what they choose? Copé made another interesting point that people are not afforded the right to walk down Fifth Avenue in the nude; that is illegal for reasons Americans have accepted. But are we willing to make the exact opposite—full-fledged modesty and covering—illegal in the United States? You tell me.

My gut reaction is that I don’t feel comfortable with someone walking the streets whose face I cannot see. But when it gets cold in Wisconsin and Maine and people walk the streets in enormous coats and hats and have their faces covered with scarves, we are perfectly fine with that. We as a culture understand that. And why should my discomfort affect someone else’s wardrobe?

And I for one am not ready to conclude, or even remotely suggest, that all women who wear the face veil or full-body burqa are doing so because they are required to by the men in their lives and by the religion in which they have grown up. Religion is a slippery sucker, and if a woman believes that her god wants her to dress that way, and it harms no one else to do so, then who is the government to say that belief is false and unworthy of following? Nobody is up in arms about the yarmulke or the habit worn by nuns. And what about the bonnets and long skirts worn by the Amish? Are they next?

As sad as it is to say, I think it’s only fair to admit that discrimination plays a major role in Western culture’s desire to eradicate burqas on its soil. Ever since the September 11, 2001, attacks, many Americans have viewed Muslims as dangerous and out to get them. There is little, if any, trust there, not to mention feelings of loathing, warranted or not. It’s the classic binary of “us versus them” and the Other. And discriminating against the Other simply because they are different has constantly proven immoral and unjust.

Besides, these women don the burqa so that they may go into the public sphere and participate in public life. If we take that option away from them, it would likely push most of them into deeper hiding and isolation. And if it’s supposed to be all about how the burqa is such a stain on women’s equality, I can think of a few other areas to tackle first. It’s not as if male domination, domestic abuse, or the objectification of women is a particularly Muslim problem.

How do you feel about it? What do you think are the compelling security issues with wearing the burqa, and how is it any different from other baggy clothes or accessories that disguise someone’s identity? Do you think the United States will ever enact such a ban on face veils or full body burqas? Please share your opinion, whichever way it might lean!

** Update: France’s lower house of parliament voted today overwhelmingly in favor of banning the veils. The vote was 355 to 1.

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I remember in high school going to pick up one of my good friends, and when she would jump in the car, a wave of cigarette stench would join her. Notice I did not say a wave of cigarette smoke, for my friend did not smoke. However, she lived in a home where her father smoked inside, so it was impossible for her to avoid smelling of it as well. I didn’t particularly like the smell or appreciate when I would return home with the odor after a visit to her house, but I figured, hey, it’s his home and he has the right to do whatever he wants in his home within the law.

Though in recent years there has been a flood of states prohibiting smoking inside restaurants (including such tobacco states as Virginia and North Carolina), it is still perfectly legal for people to smoke inside their own homes. I am not necessarily fond of the practice, but I will defend their right to do this. After all, last I checked, cigarettes and cigars are legal.

But an article in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine raises an interesting question—what about public housing? Does the government have the right to ban tenants of public or subsidized housing from smoking indoors, and even on the residential property?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees public housing, has maintained that it does not require local public housing authorities to ban smoking in their buildings, but it also does not prevent a ban.

The benefits of removing cigarette smoke from multi-unit housing—especially low-income public housing—are compelling. For starters, a ban would exponentially reduce the health risks associated with secondhand and thirdhand smoke. (Thirdhand smoke comes from the toxic residue left on walls, carpets, flooring, and so on even after a smoking resident has moved out of the unit.) Even one smoker in a multi-unit building causes problems for everyone. Smoke travels far beyond the four walls of the room where the cigarette was lit, through air ducts, through cracks in the walls, and along plumbing lines, for example. And since there is a higher incidence of vulnerable groups —that is, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled or chronically ill—living in public housing, this health benefit is that much more important.

At the same time, a ban could reduce firsthand smoke. If you are used to lighting up a cigarette while you’re in bed or watching television and all of a sudden you’re forced to stop what you’re doing to step outside into the freezing cold or into the extreme heat to smoke, you might smoke fewer cigarettes. And if the ban includes all of the common areas on the property, and not just in enclosed spaces, that would especially make it a pain to smoke. Plus, these added complications could be just the push an addicted smoker needs to quit altogether.

The second gigantic benefit of banning smoking in public housing is that great motivator—money. The NEJM article says that the cost to completely decontaminate a two-bedroom unit can exceed $15,000, and a simple cleaning of a smoky unit is two or three times more expensive than for a unit where the tenants did not smoke. Obviously, if the dwellings are being subsidized by taxpayers, it makes tremendous policy sense to minimize those costs. In a related note, banning smoking would lower the risk of fire, which not only lowers reconstruction costs and insurance premiums, but also reduces risk of loss of property and life itself.

But critics argue that banning smoking in these homes violates the right to personal liberty and privacy based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Yet I live in a smoke-free, pet-free building. Of course, that’s because I rent, and the building owners have the right to set whatever rules they want.

What makes the question for public housing so intriguing is that it’s not always clear who really owns the unit. Some 7 million Americans live in public housing, and there are a few variations on how programs are set up (tenant-based, project-based, subsidy-based, Section 8, and so on). But what they generally have in common is that the individual pays a portion of the bill, often based on a percentage of income, and the government pays the rest. Do we consider the person in receipt of the subsidy to own the dwelling… or not? If the answer is yes, then they should be afforded the same rights as other homeowners, which includes the right to smoke indoors and on your own property. But since nothing is easy, the answer to that question varies. Some government-assisted housing programs subsidize privately-owned affordable housing; however, some of the programs simply subsidize government-owned buildings that allow the tenants to rent the unit at a rate they can afford. Do you think the ban should be applied differently in each situation or that there should be a sweeping rule for all those receiving assistance?

A final interesting argument against the ban is that people in public housing are dependent on such support and cannot do what more well-to-do citizens would if they disagreed with something their landlord or homeowners association enacted—and that is talk or vote with their feet… in other words, move. Low-income families who have already beaten the odds by simply getting placed in public housing cannot rightly afford to move away. And if they are truly addicted to the nicotine in this legal product, what do the regulators expect them to do? Tough cookies, and kick the habit, I guess. Or maybe the agent enforcing the ban would have to pay for a smoking cessation program.

If we are willing to go this far, though, why not just ban cigarettes and cigars altogether? If soon the only place people will be able to smoke is in the private, single-unit residence of a rich person, how ridiculous has the act of selling the product become?

This is all not to mention the inadequate resources that exist to enforce such a ban. Illegal drugs are also not allowed in public housing, yet statistics insist they are rampant. Plus, it would be pretty morally and legally challenging to evict a tenant of public housing who most likely has nowhere else to go.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we ban cigarettes in America. Nor am I suggesting that people living in government-subsidized, multi-unit housing ought to be able to cheapen, if not ruin, it with smoke. But the questions raised are important. What is your take? All opinions and comments are encouraged.

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The Cambridge Dictionary defines populism as political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes. Generally, we have come to define it as anything related to grass-roots democracy, egalitarianism, and simply appealing to the common person. Populism’s philosophy is about respecting the needs of the common, everyday citizen rather than some elite. It’s anti-establishment and sometimes anti-intellectual.

By most definitions, especially the media’s, the Tea Party movement is a populist one. (But okay, maybe not an egalitarian one.)

I’d like to share another definition with you—that for popular: of, pertaining to, or representing the people, especially the common people. Also, of the people as a whole, especially of all citizens of a nation or state qualified to participate in an election.

The essences of populism and popular are inherently connected, but there is a growing bloc of regressive activists insisting on separating that connection, and they are infiltrating the Tea Party movement and, by extension, the Republican Party. The latest eyebrow-raising issue to fall out of the Tea Partiers is a desire to repeal the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For anyone who doesn’t know (and don’t feel bad), the 17th Amendment is the one that provides for direct election of United States senators. Before it was adopted in 1913, senators were appointed by the state legislatures. Evidently, some vocal citizens want to return to that era.

When the nation was founded, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and most other authors of the Constitution insisted on having the state legislatures appoint U.S. senators to ensure that states had federal representation in Congress. The members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by the people and therefore represent the people, and the members of the Senate would represent the states. When the method of choosing senators was changed, many argue that it was done in sacrifice to states rights.

Madison and company were also concerned that if senators were directly elected by the people, they would be susceptible to special interests and corrupt behavior. That’s pretty interesting, considering one of the primary reasons for enacting the 17th Amendment was to put a stop to all the corruption that went with state legislatures appointing senators, not least among that corruption being William A. Clark openly bribing members of the legislature at $10,000 a pop for a vote for the senate. He won. (I do appreciate his statement, though, that he “never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”) (nytimes)

I suppose I can see some validity in the reasoning that one of the houses of Congress should be more responsible to the individual states. After all, many of the giant federal mandates of the past century (Social Security, Medicare, the minimum wage, civil rights) might not have been passed if the people in charge of governing the states had more of a say.

But does anyone honestly think this is the way to go? To revert to a system that bred just as much corruption and pandering to special interests as anything we can conceive of today?

For starters, the Tea Party claims to be a populist movement, but taking the election of senators out of the hands of the popular vote and putting it into the hands of a much more elite set of people is blasphemy to populism.

Not to mention, a populist movement standing up for the “common” person has historically meant fighting for the little guy, the underdog, and those in a position of less. The Tea Partiers are fighting against all of that. They want to put the responsibility of appointing our national senators in the hands of people who look an awful lot like them—more white, more Christian, more middle and upper class, and often past middle age. Many are disgruntled by the influx of Latinos into this country and by the rights being increasingly extended to homosexuals, among plenty of other things. They don’t like the idea that just anybody can vote and influence policy, so they want to repeal that darned 17th Amendment.

In an age of Rod Blagovich and Joe Sestak, do we really want to give more power to lifelong politicians? Why, so they can just appoint themselves and other members of the good ol’ boys club, or just the highest bidder? The very idea is baffling and leaves me with a furrowed brow.

Even though not everyone who can vote does, luckily pretty much everyone likes that they can, and I don’t foresee this repeal gaining legitimate support from enough members of Congress who owe their positions to the voters. What do you think?

Why do you think a repeal of the 17th Amendment has gained ground with this vocal subset of activists and even Senate and House candidates (I’m looking at you Steve Strivers, Raul Labrador, and Tim Bridgewater, even if some of you later backpeddled)? Do you think the original method of having state legislatures appoint senators makes sense in our system of government? Why? Of all the things to be frustrated about in today’s political atmosphere, why would something like this strike a chord with people?

And don’t look now, but your 13th Amendment might not be safe either. Recent primary winner and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul seems to have a problem with at least the first sentence, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” (I have a feeling this has a little something to do with that battle going on in Arizona right now.) Paul told a Russian broadcaster, “We’re the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen. And I think that should stop.” I will let that stand on its own and ask for your thoughts instead!

As always, please feel free to express your opinion here, whatever it may be. I welcome civil discussion and am always pleased when people comment. Have at it.

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