Friday, February 03, 2006

Cruel And Unusual

I've been a bit remiss of late, what with the all the excitement going on in Washington, at keeping an eye on the Republican wingnuts here in Wisconsin. It seemed to me that they had pretty much discovered every way to roll back the Age of Enlightenment with their religious social policies in 2005, and I talked about many of them here. Unfortunately, it seems I missed at least one, which was discussed on WPR this morning.

The Wisconsin legislature had passed a new law that denies gender re-assignment hormone therapy to Department of Corrections prisoners. Basically, there are 4 inmates in the state of Wisconsin that had been receiving hormone treatment for their gender identity disorder prior to the laws passage who will now be forced to forego treatment. Naturally, the Wisconsin branch of the ACLU is not amused by this clear violation of the Eighth Amendment and has sued the Department of Corrections, resulting in a temporary suspension of the law by the 4th circuit court of appeals (widely believed to be the most conservative in the country).

The ACLU maintains that the denial of necessary medical care is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, a view which has been supported in the past by the Supreme Court. Yet, the Republicans in Madison, aided and abetted sadly by Governor Jim Doyle, decided that such treatment was just not something for which the taxpayers of Wisconsin should have to bear the burden. Not a pretty picture, on any level.

The courts have long considered the denial of proper medical care as "cruel and unusual punishment", such as defined under the Eighth Amendment. Gender identity disorder is a legitimate and medically recognized disorder and, as such, gives no compelling reason for a denial of care. Further, there is a whole host of negative side effects that can result from a sudden termination of hormone therapy. Cardiovascular problems, depression, anxiety, sudden gain or loss in weight...just to name a few. These are medical problems that the state would then be required to treat, which really makes no sense when they can be avoided by a relatively cheap treatment.

Hormone therapy for gender identity disorder is estimated to cost between $900 and $1600 per year; no small amount for the individual but a paltry sum compared to the Department of Corrections budget. Each of the four inmates affected by this law were able to manage treatment prior to incarceration; it's rather hard to believe that the state of Wisconsin would be overly burdened by the cost. Plus, as noted above, the costs of treating the side effects wrought from discontinuing the hormone treatments could potentially range much higher. So the justification by the Republicans for this law as a way of saving taxpayer dollars just doesn't hold water.

Of course, this really gets to the meat of the issue: the real reasons this law was introduced and passed. It's yet another attempt by the Republican party of Wisconsin to introduce and enact legislation which unfairly burdens individuals with lifestyles that don't fit into the predominantly conservative Christian social morays of GOP members and supporters. After all, hormone treatments for women to combat severe menopausal symptoms or osteoporosis are not restricted by this law. Only those which help treat gender identity disorder are restricted. It's a blatant attempt to denigrate a small and misunderstood minority, whose existence, for whatever reasons, seems to irritate the phony family values crowd.

This issue did spawned an unusual amount of conservative backlash on the radio call-in this morning, as well. Normally those calling in to a WPR show tend to be on the reasonable and educated side. They tend to be more liberal, though there are often conservatives as well, but on the whole they are an intellectual lot that make for an interesting discussion. Not so, apparently, when gender identity disorder and gender re-assignment issues are being discussed. Sadly, there still seems to be a few small minorities that many folks feel free to denigrate at will, with no sense of humanity whatsoever. The justifications for this law came fast and furious:

"These people are criminals so why should they be comfortable and provided for medically?

This sort of view is a conservative staple that combines the conservative hatred of the notion that someone, somewhere may be receiving some benefit that said conservative is not with the macho baffoonery of being "tough on crime". Neither stance makes any sense, which is why the rest of America is fortunate to have a judicial system that makes sure such notions usually don't become law. As I've said in other posts, basic needs such as food, housing, clothing and medical care are the right of every American, regardless of circumstances. No country as materially wealthy and carelessly consumerist as the United States should ever tolerate the idea that a single American goes without the basics. A person who is incarcerated for a crime is being stripped of their rights and freedoms for a time as punishment for their offenses. Denying them medical care in order to save a few bucks is morally reprehensible and a violation of our American ideals.
Further, there is nothing "tough" about denying decent care to prisoners. They've been deprived of their liberty as punishment for their crimes and thus the government is responsible to provide them with the basic necessities that they can no longer seek on their own. Our prison system is horrific enough without adding the cruelty of discomfort or death due to denied medical care. No public good of any kind is served by such actions.

"Wisconsin tax payers already pay too much in taxes, so why should they have to pay for this sort of thing as well?

This complaint is slightly more complex than it seems at first, primarily because complaints about tax responsibilities are often legitimate. Wisconsin taxpayers pay quite a bit compared to the rest of the country, and that money is not always used to its best effect. However, as demonstrated above, the cost to provide four transgendered individuals with hormone treatments for a year is less than the cost of most used cars. Frugality is one thing, cruelty through penny-pinching is quite another.
Furthermore, the issue isn't really the medical care, it's the people who are benefiting from the care. For many conservatives, gender identity issues are just a new spin on homosexuality and such conservatives refuse to recognize either as anything but deviant lifestyle choices. Bigoted, yes, but a matter of personal choice until the legislature gets involved. Even if conservative taxpayers in Wisconsin despise the transgendered with every bone in their bodies, they still don't have the right to deprive those individuals of basic medical care. That's one of purposes of taxes anyway; to make sure that unpopular but necessary services are provided for financially.

"There are plenty of poor people in Wisconsin who can't afford health care, so why should these people in jail get it on the taxpayer dime?"

This just about borders on a legitimate complaint, but unfortunately goes on to blame the wrong party. As established above, the transgendered folk in Wisconsin jails have a right to sound medical care under the Constitution. The problem of others in the state not having such health care coverage is a question that conservatives should be asking their Republican legislators. The problem isn't that the four transgendered inmates are getting a benefit they don't deserve. The problem is that the poor of Wisconsin aren't getting the benefits they do deserve. Conservative ideology in this case focuses on bringing down others to the same level of suffering instead of raising them up to a shared level of prosperity. The same argument seems to occur often in labor issues; many conservatives seem to think union members should lose their good benefits rather than everyone else gain those same benefits. It's a bleak worldview of shared suffering that, unfortunately, dovetails nicely into a certain prominent faith's belief in a reality of suffering.

It's disheartening to imagine the kind of cynical political calculus the Republicans used to come up with an egregious law like this one. It's clearly a grade-school bully mentality, designed to score cheap political points at the expense of a misunderstood and mistreated minority. Where the dividing line once was race, now it's sexuality and gender issues. Regardless, it's still rank bigotry and the Republicans who sponsored this bill, along with our trying-too-hard-to-be-Centrist governor who signed it into law, should hang their heads in shame. They are pandering to a majority view that has no social value or moral framework other than contempt and loathing for those who are different. The Bill of Rights was written for the protection of just such Americans as these four affected by this misguided law. The denial of medical treatment is cruel and unusual punishment and has no place in Wisconsin or anywhere else.

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