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Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
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Legislation and Societal Attitudes: A Love-Hate Relationship
Subtitle: A Murder Suicide Waiting to Happen

by Mo Convery, L.B. Graham, Jessie Payson, Chelsea Phillips and Claire Pomeroy

Laws are not created in a vacuum. Legislators attempt to reflect cultural norms by regulating practice through written statutes. Consequently, it is possible to adjust social attitudes using legislation enforced action; the dynamic between legislation and societal attitudes is fraught with flaws. The precise rhetoric used by one group of people, for example, pro-lifers, can determine the entire framework in which we discuss particular issues. Legislation primarily deals with the effects of citizens' behavior yet rarely addresses the causes thereof as in the case of the debate over abortion. Given the evolution of society and increased access to information, societal attitudes have changed and lawmakers have been forced to decide how to adapt to shifting norms. For example, the breakdown of stereotypes surrounding women forced legislators to pass laws equalizing access to educational and extracurricular resources for students under Title IX; the rights of gays and lesbians in Florida to become adoptive parents will come before the Supreme Court to strike down a law based on homophobic stereotypes linking homosexuality and pedophilia. Thinking outside societal norms to form legislation opens the door to creating laws focused on the causes, rather than the effects, of individual problems normally attributed to societal ills. This book examines the dynamic between society and legislation and the possibilities that lie within, and without.

The debate about abortion is a prime example of a piece legislation missing the underlying problems of society, thus focusing law and the debate over the law on the product of these problems instead of working to fix them directly. Despite the great effort that has gone into the feminist movement, women still do not stand as equals in society. Societal structures, such as the workplace, favor men. Abortion, which gives women more autonomy through the ability to control their bodies, serves to bypass the need for a dramatic change in the patriarchal structure of society. It is through a feminist framework that the two opposing sides of pro-life and pro-choice can unite to fight for this drastic change in structure by attacking the underlying problem of inequality of women. Only after the fundamental problems are settled can legislation accurately reflect what it is regulating.

Florida state law does not permit gays and lesbians to adopt. Passed in 1977, the law is founded on a homophobic belief that homosexuality equates to pedophilia. Even as the moral tone of society in a particular time and place creates legislation, it is impartial deference to the facts of a case which change that legislation, and so feed the larger societal view of an issue. Political rhetoric plays to the emotions of an audience, but the legislation must reflect facts- and the facts in this case favor the ACLU and the rights of gays and lesbians. The refusal of lower courts to overturn the law opened the best possible way to guarantee adoption rights for gays and lesbians in the future- having a Supreme Court ruling to look to as precedent.

The United States federal legislature concretely addressed the issue of sex discrimination in public educational institutions in 1972 by passing the Title IX Education Amendment. The law was took effect during the era of second wave feminism proclaiming that women be liberated from their devalued traditional gender roles. In both academic and extra curricular educational settings, girls and women did not enjoy the same quality of experience as men and boys. Without equal access to educational opportunities, women would always be financially and thus socially dependent upon men; proponents of the movement recognized the long term effects of providing women with the same chances for success as for men. Title IX reflected the change in societal attitudes concerning the increased value of women.s potential contributions, but the legislation did not change the daily practices in educational settings which promote gender inequity.

Laws can inform our social beliefs by indicating that society does and does not find permissable; societal beliefs also shape legislations - you cannot make a law you cannot enforce. Taking another step back, these attitudes can be manipulated through talk about legislation. One such use of cunning rhetoric is in the pro-life's connection of slavery to abortion. In this line of thinking, slavery was wrong because it gave rights over slaves' bodies to slave-owners; abortion is wrong because it gives rights over fetuses' bodies to mothers. In this line of reasoning, the Dred Scott decision and Roe v. Wade were both decided by personal immorality rather than strict interpretation of the Constitution. This story is not accurate history or legal interpretation, but it is plausibly constructed and, moreover, persuasive.

Once the pervasiveness of societal norms in legislation is understood, it is necessary to look beyond this restrictive standpoint to individuality. Focusing on individual cases not only addresses groups of people who might otherwise be neglected, but it also presents a more complete and diverse view of the problem at hand. This extension of public analysis was taken in the 2004 WHO World report on Health and Violence. As illustrated in the report, the increased levels of personal discussion allowed for the development of complex partnerships between once marginalized groups. This allowed for public health officials to gain a greater understanding of the root causes and possible methods of prevention. In legislation this diverse collection of ideas and experiences is necessary in creating statutes that are most appropriate and efficient.

This book addresses the inconsistencies which arise when societal norms are used as the foundations of legislation and public policy. This system of legislation based on this ideal of normalcy allows the needs of individuals to be neglected and repressed when protection under the law is necessary. It is constantly perpetuated through the basic rhetoric and past laws which politicians and lobbying parties present. It is only when legislators are able to identify this reliance and to respond accordingly to a changing and diverse society that the laws will be most valid.


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