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The Answer Blog

Archive for August, 2010

My Message in a Bottle for My Neighbor, the President

August 27, 2010
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For the next ten days, President Obama will be my neighbor on Martha’s Vineyard. He’s not going to be what you call a cheek-by-jowl neighbor. Although we shall both be living in the same area of the Vineyard — Chilmark — we shall be separated by the Atlantic Ocean, Chilmark Pond, Tisbury Great Pont, South Road and legions of Secret Service.

Last year when President Obama and his family visited for the first time, I had already left the island, so I’m really excited have him close by this year. I must admit the chances aren’t great that I’ll actually see him strolling down the beautiful, wide beach that borders this part of the island, or find him at the nearby West Tisbury county fair, which is pulling in the crowds. I’m not going to rule out such a meeting, because some years ago, my youngest daughter ran right into Bill and Hillary Clinton on another Vineyard beach when they were vacationing here. (They stopped and smiled for her camera; we have the pictures to prove it.) But I doubt that summer lightening will strike twice for this family.

So I decided to be creative in getting a message to the president. Some people have written letters to him in the local newspapers. While strolling the beach, I fantasized that I would write him a note about an international topic that’s troubling me, put it in a bottle, and cast it out to sea. With some help from the wind and tides, the bottle might wash up on the sands of Tisbury Great Pond, near where the president is staying. With some luck, it might be retrieved by Bo, the family dog.

Now I know this message in a bottle is a fantasy, but the subject on my mind is anything but whimsical.The administration has not commented on the recent death by stoning of a young Afghan couple that had eloped to a safe shelter and wanted nothing more than to marry. (The story appeared on the front page of The New York Times.)

The Taliban had the “first public execution since their fall from power nine years ago, killing a young couple who had eloped,” according to the Times. The couple – Khayyam, 25, and Siddiqa, 19 – had fallen in love despite her upcoming arranged marriage to Khayyam’s relative, which she refused to do. They fled from their village in the remote corner of Kunduz Province in northeastern Afghanistan.

Family members tricked the couple into returning, and they were seized by the local Taliban. A religious court condemned them to death. Their punishment for “an illegal sexual relationship” was death by stoning.

Hundreds of men of the community, including Siddiqa’s brother and the couple’s neighbors – no women were allowed – surrounded the couple, who had sworn publicly “to love each other no matter what happened.” Amid much festive cheering and shouting, they were stoned to death.

Siddiqa – dressed in a head-to-toe burqa that showed nothing but her eyes – died first. The source who reported the grizzly details said that the crowd was happy, because under strict Shariah law, “death by stoning in this situation is an appropriate punishment.”

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said he was “deeply grieved” by the killings. Amnesty International also condemned them, as did the local Kunduz governor’s office. Their remarks are reassuring, but I’ve heard nothing from American leaders.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have spoken eloquently about freedom of religion in the U.S. in connection with the Mosque location controversy in Lower Manhattan. But neither has spoken out about these barbaric killings in Afghanistan, where Americans are dying to supposedly encourage more democratic principles and a new constitution that would support women’s rights. Surely, this tragedy would offer a moment for American leaders to speak up about ending violence against women.

I’m not naïve. I know there is evil in the world. And what is the death of one young couple, compared to the deaths of many military members and civilians from roadside bombs. I would tell the president that the stoning death of this young couple diminishes all women’s rights, an issue he cares about.

For me, Khayyam and Siddiqa are a modern Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers whose lives were destroyed by hateful adults. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet speaks these beautiful words when she discovers that her lover has killed himself after he thinks she is dead:

“[T]ake him and cut him up in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will fall in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”

I shall remember these words when I think about Khayyam and Siddiqa, whom no one in high places seems to care about. If you are interested in making your voice heard about this tragedy, you might want to send a donation to Amnesty International.

I would end my note to the President by telling him that I’ve always admired how he speaks up for his young daughters and wants their rights and opportunities to only expand. Speaking out against Siddiqa’s and Khayyam’s deaths would be speaking out for all young women and men who seek the right to love and marry.

Maybe it’s just as well that there’s no way under the sun for a message in a bottle to get by Secret Service. After all, I really want the president to have a restful vacation and not have to listen to the likes of neighbors like me.

Warren Buffett’s Wise Words about Women

August 6, 2010

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Hey, Eve, are you there? I think you’re going to love these wise words. They may make you feel a lot better about those caustic comments hurled at you through the ages about eating the apple and getting booted from Eden to go work by the sweat of your brow.

The words?

“Women all over the world get shortchanged.”

Warren Buffett said them. He’s “the Oracle from Omaha,” Nebraska, who heads up Berkshire Hathaway and is one of the foremost philanthropists on the planet. They were relayed by his former wife, philanthropist Susan Thompson Buffett, on The Charlie Rose Show.

“Warren feels that women all over the world get shortchanged. That’s why he’s so pro-choice,” she said.

How true the statement, especially when you think about the situations and conditions that place women at a disadvantage in their lives. A recent case in point: Governor Christie’s veto of a bill to add $7.5 million in state funding for 58 family planning clinics. A move that now unfairly affects women’s ability to control their fertility and protect against unplanned pregnancy.

I read about Buffett’s statement in the compelling New York Times magazine piece “The New Abortion Providers.”

This is an important piece by Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. It explores a dramatic new turn in the abortion struggle thanks in large part to the largess of Warren Buffett.

According to Bazelon, “This abortion-rights campaign, led by physicians themselves, is trying to recast doctors, changing them from a weak link of abortion to a strong one. Its leaders have built residency programs and fellowships at university hospitals, with the hope that, eventually, more and more doctors will use their training to bring abortion into their practices. The bold idea at the heart of this effort is to integrate abortion [not surgical, but primarily medical, administered no later than nine weeks into a pregnancy] so that it’s a seamless part of the health care for women.”

Warren Buffett is the brave person at the heart of this new strategy, according to the anonymous sources in Bazelon’s article. His money has funded a series of fellowships in the most prominent academic institutions that make it possible for OB-GYNs and family practice doctors to receive graduate training in abortion procedures.

The money comes primarily from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. She died in 2004, and two years later, writes Bazelon, “Warren Buffett gave the foundation about $3 billion. He said that he expected the gift to increase the foundation’s annual expenditures by $150 million.”

Although the article reports that “Warren Buffett has never spoken publicly about his views on abortion,” we now know through his former wife that he feels strongly that “women all over the world get shortchanged.”

American women are getting shortchanged because the availability of abortion providers has shrunk dramatically, since “most of the OB-GYNs left the stage” after Roe v. Wade, says Bazelon. She explains that “the shadow of the greedy, butchering ‘abortionist’ continued to hover, and many doctors didn’t want to stand in it.”

Women’s opportunities to have abortions in hospitals dried up, and instead they had to turn to “stand-alone clinics” for the procedure. By the mid-1990s, 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. were performed at clinics, and “feminist activists” get credit for their development.

“When the clinics became the only place in town to have an abortion, they became an easy mark for extremists,” said Carole Joffe, author of Doctors of Conscience and Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. Bazelon reports that the number of OB-GYNs providing abortions were either “graying” or “drying up.”

Fellowships provided by grants to academic medical centers from the Susan Thompson Buffett foundation are beginning to reverse the trend; they will help women who need an abortion get one in the privacy of the office of a well-trained OB-GYN or a family practice physician.

Several years ago, I received a letter from a physician at the Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula, Montana.

Although Blue Mountain bills itself as a “family practice” clinic, the doctor who wrote me said that the free-standing clinic was the only one in the state to provide abortions.

He told me that many women in Montana have to travel hundreds of miles to utilize their right to choose, and some can’t afford the time or money to make such a long journey. I’ve always been pleased to support the work of this clinic, because I do not think that any woman in Montana, or any other state, should be shortchanged from using rights guaranteed to them by the law of the land.

To date, Warren Buffett hasn’t felt the intense ire of the anti-abortion forces. Bazelon wonders if “his plainspoken Midwestern persona and his enormous wealth may make him the wrong enemy for anti-abortion advocates.” She quotes from a letter that he sent with the $3 billion gift to the foundation in 2006. He wrote that the gift was “to focus intensely on important societal problems that had very limited funding constituencies.”

This week’s news also brought another example of how women’s sexuality is shortchanged not by denying them the right to choose an abortion, but by failing to help them protect themselves from HIV during sex.

This time the example comes from Sub-Saharan Africa. In that part of Africa, more adult women and young girls than men are infected with HIV. The difference in infection levels between women and men are most pronounced among young people aged 15 to 24.

There was a glimmer of good news about women and HIV. South African scientists working in two AIDS-devastated communities say they have found a “vaginal microbicidal gel containing an antiretroviral medication used to treat AIDS, tenofovir,” which shows promising results for protecting women from HIV.

If the gel continues on this track, it means that for the first time women can control their own bodies and protect themselves from HIV. “They do not have to ask the man for permission to use it,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency.

However, it will take years before the gel is publicly available. And it will take years to see if Warren Buffett’s words and generosity bear fruit. His words are indeed wise, as are the scientists’ efforts, which can positively affect women’s health in every corner of the world.

Because when it comes to sex, women everywhere are very often shortchanged.

Right, Eve?