Good News About (Some) Sexual Rights

A few of our civil rights in America were reaffirmed last week. Ironically, the context, as is often the case when our basic rights are trampled, was sexuality.

* Forced ultrasound and required physician speech found unconstitutional

Like 12 other states, North Carolina forces women undergoing a legal medical procedure (abortion) to undergo an invasive procedure (uterine ultrasound) they may not want, and to listen to their doctor recite a script that the doctor may not want to recite and the woman may not want to hear.

In upholding a successful challenge to the law, a federal court concluded that the “state cannot commandeer the doctor-patient relationship to compel a physician to express its preference to the patient.”

Furthermore, “transforming the physician into the mouthpiece of the state undermines the trust that is necessary for facilitating healthy doctor-patient relationships and, through them, successful treatment outcomes.” Authored by conservative judges, the court’s decision is an elegant description of the brutal way government treats patients just because it doesn’t like their medical choices.

The Religious Right and other groups have consistently tried to regulate abortion differently than other legal medical procedures. The goal has always been to restrict people’s rights to this extremely safe medical intervention, simply because some people don’t want others to have it. When a group can mobilize our system of government so that one point of view gets more government-sponsored attention than others, we lose a little more of our democracy.

You may have read that presidential hopeful Scott Walker thinks that ultrasounds are “cool.” If he were a more sophisticated man, he might read this ruling and understand that “cool” is not a high enough standard to warrant government intrusion into people’s basic rights to medical care.

* Minnesota unlimited commitment of sex offenders found unconstitutional

In most countries around the world, governments exercise profound power over their citizens capriciously, destroying lives deliberately or carelessly.

Americans are justifiably proud of the many limits on our government’s power to do just that. Most Americans don’t realize, however, the limits on those limits—that is, the ways our government can legally target individuals and destroy them.

One way is through the radical laws regulating those convicted of sex offenses. It sounds like a punchline, but it’s true—in most states you can be punished more severely for molesting a child than for murdering one.

And that’s even true for non-molestation offenses that are considered sex crimes—possession of child pornography, voyeurism and exhibitionism, sexting, minors dating minors, certain kinds of sex work, and various activities relating to adult pornography. You can lose your children if you engage in prostitution in order to feed them. Or if you play SM games with your partner, even if the kids are blissfully unaware.

In this country, a convicted sex offender has to undergo successful “treatment” in order to be let out of prison after completing his or her sentence—a requirement imposed on no other convicted criminals. To prove the “treatment” is working, the convict must sooner or later admit his/her guilt. Punishments including denial of parole await those who refuse to “admit” their guilt.

Which makes the following fact all the more shocking: after a convicted sex offender has served his or her full sentence (often a decade or more), the state has the right to keep that person in jail permanently—based on some official’s hunch, feeling, instinct, or the phase of the goddamned moon.

Yes, even though sex offenders rarely reoffend sexually when they leave jail, the state can keep them locked up indefinitely if it guesses that they are at risk of reoffending.

In Minnesota, not one single person civilly committed after completing their sex offender prison sentence was ultimately released. The state’s involuntary detention program was challenged for equaling life imprisonment without trial. A federal court agreed. And so Minnesota will have to change the program. It can’t give anyone back their lives, of course. And the court certainly didn’t say a state couldn’t lock people up indefinitely—only that Minnesota, like other states, has to seem to do it less capriciously and more rationally.

That will be marginally better. But only marginally, because no therapist in the world can accurately predict who will NOT re-offend. Remember, most sex offenders don’t sexually re-offend. But because wardens and politicians don’t want the public to blame them on the rare occasion that a re-offense occurs, officials pretend that they can predict accurately—justifying the state’s ability to lock people up indefinitely.

Or else politicians in the prison industry’s pocket pretend that locking up people for life without a trial is the way to protect the public.

And many Americans agree. As long as the person being locked up isn’t them.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be you. You think you’re safe because you haven’t molested anyone? Tell that to the people behind bars who didn’t molest anyone, either.

So two different federal courts—in Minnesota and in North Carolina, a thousand miles apart—have reminded two different state legislatures that our civil rights include rights relating to sexuality. There’s the right to get an abortion without coercion. And the right for even half a chance to get out of jail after completing a prison sentence for a sex crime.

Of course, these two battles in America’s ongoing war on sex aren’t finished. The GOP’s obsession with preventing abortion in the most demeaning, most economically discriminatory fashion possible. And those obsessed with sex crimes, like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, will keep spewing phony, scary propaganda that drives citizens, juries, and legislators alike.

But every once in a while, our increasingly conservative court system notices how states and the feds break the law trying to control our sexuality. Sometimes conservatives actually conserve. They deserve our thanks.

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