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3/18/2014 - Senate Votes to Reauthorize Child Care Bill

The Senate voted 96-2 last week to pass the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 (CCDBG), a federal grant program that provides child care assistance to families and funding for child care initiatives.

The CCDBG was authored by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Richard Burr (D-NC), along with Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and reflected feedback from parents, child care providers, and childhood development experts. It aims to improve the health and safety of the 1.5 million children and families who benefit from the federal child care subsidy program, by strengthening regulations for child care providers and facilities such as requiring background checks and inspections [PDF]. It will improve families' access to child care by, among other changes, requiring states to use at least 70 percent of the grant's funding for direct services [PDF]. It will also strengthen the quality of child care by requiring developmentally appropriate training for child care providers, and it will improve the coordination of early care and education.

"CCDBG provides a lifeline so that all children have the care that they need and deserve," said Senator Mikulski. "Updating this vitally important child care program will help support those who care for our children, give parents peace of mind that their children are safe and receiving quality care, and better prepare our children for the future. It will help keep working parents at work while ensuring children have a safe environment that provides them the skills they need to begin to develop their potential and be better prepared for school."

The CCDBG now moves to a vote in the House. If passed, this would be the first time the law has been reauthorized since 1996.

3/18/2014 - Federal Court Strikes Down Arkansas Early Abortion Ban

US District Judge Susan Webber Wright struck down an Arkansas law last week that would have banned abortions at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Webber declared the measure to be unconstitutional, stating that it "impermissibly infringes a woman's Fourteenth Amendment right to elect to terminate a pregnancy before viability."

"This was one of the most extreme laws passed in 2013 by lawmakers dead-set on taking away a women's ability to make the best medical decision for herself and her family," said Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "We must ensure that this personal medical decision remains where it belongs: not with politicians, but with a woman, her family, and her doctor."

Democratic Governor Mike Beebe vetoed the bill last year, but Republicans controlling the state legislature overrode the veto with a simple majority vote. The Arkansas law would have banned most abortions at or after 12 weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat could be detected. Judge Webber had previously ordered a temporary injunction of the law, preventing it from being enforced pending a decision on the law's constitutionality. Her ruling last week means that the law can never go into effect, although Judge Webber did let stand the law's mandatory ultrasound requirement.

Several other states are pushing extreme legislation to severely limit access to abortion, including Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. The consequences of laws targeting access to abortion and women's reproductive healthcare are being felt acutely in Texas, where dozens of abortion clinics have been forced to close.

3/14/2014 - McDonald's Employees File 7 Class-Action Lawsuits For Wage Theft

McDonald's employees in three states filed seven class-action lawsuits against the company and some franchise owners this week, alleging they were illegally underpaid.

The employees assert that hours were erased from their timecards, they were not paid overtime, and they were often ordered to work off the clock. In one of the two cases filed in Michigan, employees were required to come to work at a certain time, but then had to wait two hours until enough customers came to start getting paid. Employees were also forced to pay for their own work uniforms, which pushed their income below the current federal minimum wage of $7.25.

"Our wages are already at rock bottom," said Sharnell Grandberry, a McDonald's worker in Detroit. "It is time for McDonald's to stop skirting the law to pad profits. We need to get paid for the hours we work."

Besides Michigan, four of the lawsuits were filed in California and one in New York. One of the cases in California represents 27,000 people.

Fast food workers across the US have been striking and protesting for higher wages and more labor protections for almost a year now - changes that would particularly help women and people of color. Seventy-three percent of all front-line fast food workers are women, and 43 percent are black or Latino. Fifty-two percent of fast food workers have to rely on public assistance because their wages are too low to survive on. But as Michelle Chen reports in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms., the National Restaurant Association has opposed increases in wages, and the industry "lobbies fiercely against local, state and national minimum-wage legislation, claiming the pay boost would cause job losses and hurt businesses. Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald's raked in about $13.8 million in fiscal 2012, an estimated 737 times what the average fast-food worker earned."

3/14/2014 - Students and Activists Demand Sexual Assault Reform at Dartmouth

Thousands of people are calling on Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to improve its sexual assault policies, after a student whose name appeared in a "rape guide" on a student-run website was sexually assaulted.

Women's advocacy group UltraViolet created a petition demanding that Dartmouth "take student recommendations seriously and expel rapists, list rape as a punishable offense and expulsion as the preferred punishment in the student handbook, and block access to the 'rape guide' on campus." Over 50,000 people have already signed on. You can join in and sign UltraViolet's petition here.

Dartmouth is also currently under federal investigation for violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex and requires that universities ensure a safe learning environment for all students. Dozens of other universities face similar investigations for mishandling sexual assault cases, most recently Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University.

TAKE ACTION: Organize to end rape on campus with Feminist Campus!

3/14/2014 - Obama Aims To Reform Overtime Pay Regulations

President Barack Obama announced in a statement yesterday that he would be directing Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor, to improve overtime pay labor regulations as part of his "year of action." It is expected that the salary threshold for overtime pay will be raised, among other changes.

"If you go above and beyond to help your employer and your economy succeed, then you should share a little bit in that success," Obama said in his remarks yesterday.

Under the current rules, any worker making more than $455 per week or $23,660 per year is not eligible for overtime pay, a threshold that has not been significantly changed since 1975. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that if the threshold is raised to $970 per week or $50,440 per year - what the threshold would be if it had been adjusted for inflation - around 10 million workers would receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week.

In addition, any workers classified as executive, administrative, or professional under the "white-collar exemption" can currently be denied overtime pay, usually time-and-a-half, if they work more than 40 hours per week. An executive title can be applied to someone even if they oversee people for only a small percentage of their job, such as fast-food shift supervisors or convenience store managers.

The changes could significantly improve the economy and boost income for 10 million Americans, especially lower-income people. ThinkProgress also reports that it has the potential to reduce the standard workweek. Many Americans work 50 hours or more a week without overtime, so businesses may cap their hours or hire more people rather than pay them more.

The Obama administration has focused on labor protections and improvements in the past few months. Last September, the DOL expanded labor protections for home care workers. In February, Obama issued an executive order increasing the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, and he is pushing Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all Americans. The White House also released charts yesterday detailing women's participation in the workforce and ways to reduce the gender wage gap.

"We need to fix the system so folks working hard are getting compensated fairly," said Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

3/13/2014 - Majority of Americans Approve of Obamacare Contraception Mandate

A poll conducted earlier this month by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that a majority of Americans agree with the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate. The mandate requires employers to provide coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives, including the pill and IUDs, without co-pays or deductibles, helping millions of women afford vital health care.

53 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed by telephone said that they believe employers should be required to include contraception coverage in workers' health plans even if the employers oppose its use [PDF]. The numbers were greatest among certain groups: 65 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 49, 61 percent of voters in the Northeast, and 72 percent of voters identifying as Democrats agreed with the mandate. 41 percent disagreed, saying employers should have the same exemption as religious organizations, and 6 percent said they were unsure.

Although the administration has allowed churches to opt out of the mandate and offered special arrangements for Catholic-affiliated universities, hospitals and charities, several for-profit companies are still trying to avoid following the law. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on March 25 from two companies claiming the contraception mandate violates their religious beliefs, Hobby Lobby craft store and Conestoga Wood.

TAKE ACTION: Send a clear message to the Supreme Court before the oral arguments on March 25 that companies should not be able to use religion as cover to discriminate against women. Leave stories and tell the Court why BC coverage matters to you! Share the petition online using the tag #MyBodyMyBC! You can also join Feminist Majority Foundation and 1,000 other activists at the Supreme Court on March 25 to show your support.

3/12/2014 - Uninsured Rate Hits New Low as Affordable Care Act Puts Insurance Within Reach

The percentage of Americans without health insurance has hit a second consecutive five-year low, falling to 15.9 percent according to a Gallup telephone survey of over 28,000 adults. The uninsured rate has been declining since the end of 2013, likely thanks to the opening of the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) health insurance marketplaces.

The rate has dropped for almost every major demographic group and for all age groups except for those aged 65 and older, who typically have Medicare. The uninsurance rates for lower-income people and African-Americans have dropped the most. Americans with an annual income of less than $36,000 have seen their rates drop by 2.8 percentage points to 27.9 percent since fourth quarter of 2013, and African-Americans' rates have dropped by 2.6 points to 18.3 percent. Hispanics are still the group most likely to be uninsured, with a current rate of 37.9 percent.

The ACA has helped over 4.2 million Americans obtain the health insurance they need to be able to take care of themselves and their families. It has especially made it easier for women to obtain affordable, quality health care coverage that fits their needs. For example, it guarantees that plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles, cancer screenings, domestic violence counseling, and well women exams, as well as maternal care, mental health care, and pediatric services - among many others. It also does not allow insurance policies to charge women more simply because of their gender.

About 6 million more people are expected to enroll by the March 31 deadline.

3/12/2014 - New York Legislators Introduce Bill Banning Employer Discrimination Against Women For Reproductive Health Decisions

New York State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced a bill last week that would ban employers from discriminating against employees based on their reproductive health decisions.

"Employers should not have the right to make healthcare decisions for their employees," said Assemblymember Jaffee in a statement. "Denying millions of women access to affordable birth control is denying them fair and equal access to basic preventive health care. This legislation is a step in the right direction: It will guarantee New York women, not their employers, the freedom and fundamental right to make their own personal healthcare decisions about what is best for them and their families."

The "Boss Bill" would close a loophole in New York's current workplace anti-discrimination laws to ensure women are not discriminated against for their personal reproductive health choices and to protect their privacy. Krueger and Jaffee drafted it in response to the over 100 federal lawsuits by employers trying to avoid the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate, which requires employers to provide coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives, including the pill and IUDs, without co-pays or deductibles.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments related to the Hobby Lobby craft store chain's lawsuit against the ACA mandate on March 25.

TAKE ACTION: Send a clear message to the Supreme Court that companies should not be able to use religion as cover to discriminate against women. Leave stories and tell the Court why BC coverage matters to you! Share the petition online using the tag #MyBodyMyBC!

3/11/2014 - Senate Passes Limited Military Sexual Assault Reform Bill

Only a few days after the Senate blocked the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), it unanimously approved a bill that proposes several different reforms to combat sexual assault in the military.

"This debate has been about one thing - getting the policy right to best protect and empower victims, and boost prosecutions of predators," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said in a statement. "I believe we're on the cusp of achieving that goal."

The bipartisan bill was created by Sen. McCaskill, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE). It will eliminate the "good soldier defense" in trials, meaning accused soldiers cannot use evidence of good military character and performance to question an accusation unless it is directly relevant to the crime. The bill will give accusers more power to choose whether their cases go through the military or the civilian system, allow victims to challenge their discharge from the military, increase the accountability of commanders, and extend the changes to service academies. In a case where a prosecutor wants to move forward with a case but a commander does not, the civilian service secretary would have the final say.

An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults in the military occurred in 2012, according to a report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program of the Department of Defense. Looking forward, Ayotte discussed the need for following through on this bill to best help survivors. "We will make sure reforms that have been passed are implemented, that commanders are held accountable for a climate within their unit of zero tolerance and that victims of sexual assault are treated with dignity and respect," she said. The bill now moves on to the House.

3/10/2014 - Anti-Choice Laws Move Through State Legislatures

Across the country, state legislatures are moving to restrict access to abortion to the point of elimination. Though the courts have already struck down several such statutes, including Arizona's 20-week abortion ban, a wave of new laws is currently making its way through the legislatures of several states, including Arizona, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama.

Last week, the Georgia State Senate passed a bill that would prohibit state-sponsored insurance from covering abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest and a narrow exception for health issues. On the same day, Alabama advanced four separate anti-choice provisions that would make it more difficult for minors to obtain abortions, extend the waiting period on abortions, ban abortion after six weeks, and require women to receive more counseling about alternatives before terminating a pregnancy.

"We know that state politicians want abortion to be illegal, and they aren't always able to do it outright," Gretchen Borchelt, director of state reproductive health-care policy at the National Women's Law Center,told RH Reality Check. "So what they are doing is pushing restrictions that make abortion more unaffordable, or interfere with a woman's ability to get access to abortion."

A similar six-week abortion ban has already been put on hold by courts in North Dakota for overstepping Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, West Virginia's House passed its own 20-week abortion ban in late February.

Targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP laws) currently working their way through the legislatures in Arizona and Oklahoma threaten clinic operations more directly. Oklahoma's new bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Oklahoma House of Representatives last Thursday, would instate rules for clinics requiring their doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a provision similar to the one passed over the summer in Texas and now causing dozens of clinics to close. Arizona's state House has also approved a new bill that would allow for unannounced inspections of abortion clinics within the state, which may be used by public officials to harass abortion providers.

Finally, in South Dakota, a number of new laws have been introduced on the subject of reproductive rights. In addition to last month's proposal for a 7-week abortion ban, the state has proposed legislation that would ban sex-selective abortion. The bill passed the House two weeks ago and is presently up for debate in the state Senate. South Dakota's House also approved a change last week that would prohibit any pregnancy help center not just from discussing abortion, but from discussing adoption or providing referrals to adoption agencies.

3/10/2014 - Domestic Violence Program Survey Demonstrates Need For More Resources

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) released its 2013 census report documenting the continued, dramatic need for domestic violence services and a lack of adequate resources for domestic violence shelters and programs that are struggling to help victims in need.

"Domestic Violence Counts: Census 2013 Report" was conducted by surveying domestic violence programs on a single day, September 17, 2013. Eighty-seven percent of identified domestic violence programs participated. On just that one day, 66,581 victims received services from programs across the United States. Over half of those found refuge in emergency shelters or transitional housing, including 19,431 children, while others received non-residential assistance such as counseling, legal advocacy, or children's support groups. In addition, 20,267 hotline calls were answered, providing support, safety planning, and other resources.

Although thousands of victims were assisted, almost nearly 10,000 requests for some kind of service went unmet. Over 60 percent of denied requests involved the need for housing, which many shelters and programs could not provide because of a lack of resources and staff. Lack of resources is directly related to reduced government funding and decreases in private and individual donations, even as the demand for services has increased, in part because of mandatory domestic violence screening required by the Affordable Care Act.

"Every day in this country, victims of domestic violence are bravely reaching out for help, and it's essential that they have somewhere safe to go, said Kim Gandy, President and CEO of the NNEDV. "We have made so much progress toward ending violence and giving survivors avenues for safety. But continued program cuts jeopardize that progress and jeopardize the lives of victims."

When victims reaching out cannot receive the necessary services, 60 percent of programs report that victims return to their abusers, 27 percent report that victims become homeless, and another 11 percent report that they end up living in their cars. One in four women in the US experience domestic violence during adulthood, and three women are murdered every day by an abuser [PDF].

Advocates for victims of domestic violence have called on members of Congress to allocate an additional $40 million in funding to support domestic violence programs through the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and $147 million for the comprehensive criminal justice response to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking through the Violence Against Women Act.

3/10/2014 - Feminist Majority Endorses Maura Healey for Attorney General of Massachusetts

The Feminist Majority is proud to announce today its endorsement of Maura Healey for Massachusetts Attorney General. Healey is an experienced leader in the fight for women's rights, civil rights, human rights, health care access, education, and consumer protection.

"We enthusiastically endorse Maura Healey, a trailblazer for women's rights, civil rights, and human rights, for Attorney General of Massachusetts," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority. "She has been an impressive advocate on many issues that advance equality for all women. Her early leadership to establish one of the first state buffer zone laws to protect women's health clinics and abortion providers from violence is an example of her commitment to women's health and well- being. Moreover her commitment to human rights can be seen in her historic leadership in writing the first major state challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act and developing the prevailing argument of the nation's first state lawsuit striking down discrimination against same-sex marriage. Her fight to end predatory student loan practices of some for-profit colleges indicates her dedication to consumer protection."

Healey has invaluable experience as a former prosecutor in the Attorney General's office and has helped to lead the office for the past seven years. Healey has served in both the Public Protection & Advocacy Bureau and the Business & Labor Bureau. Between the two bureaus, she oversaw nearly a dozen divisions. She has built a professional operation which advocates on important issues including ones with national impact for women and civil rights. Earlier in her career, Maura served as Chief of the Attorney General's Civil Rights Division after serving as a private sector attorney, and a Middlesex County prosecutor.

Maura Healy stated, "For more than a quarter-century, the Feminist Majority has stood tall for so many of the issues I hold dear, including fighting for women's access to reproductive health care, equal rights, and fairness, and stamping out the root causes of violence in our homes and communities, so I'm thrilled to have their support," said Healey. "The issues facing women, people of color, and the those who have been too long disempowered and in need an advocate, are many in this race and I'm so pleased the Feminist Majority sees that I will be an Attorney General who will bring the strongest advocacy, experienced leadership, and forward-thinking vision to the office."

3/10/2014 - Report Finds Record Number of Women Winning Political Seats Worldwide

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) - an international organization of parliamentarians - released its annual review of Women in Parliament last week at the United Nations, showing a record number of women winning Parliamentary seats around the world.

Overall, there was a 1.5 percentage increase last year in the number of women holding seats in government worldwide. Rwanda has the most, with women now comprising over 60 percent of its Parliament. Latin America recorded the highest electoral gains, with Ecuador, Grenada, and Argentina now among the 39 countries in the "above-30 percent club," meaning women comprise over 30 percent of their government.

Unfortunately, almost no progress was reported in Asia and Pacific, and the United States and Canada are way behind. The US ranks 83rd out of the 189 countries surveyed, with women filling only 18.5 percent of seats in Congress [PDF].

"The record-breaking increase of women in national parliaments in 2013 is encouraging, but we are still far from equality," said current UN Women Executive Director and South African politician, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. "Around the world, women are excluded from parliaments by discrimination, violence, party structures, poverty and a lack of finance."

Because quotas have been one of the tools successfully used to improve women's access to political leadership, the IPU report calls for more ambitious and detailed quotas. "Temporary special measures like quotas are working, and UN Women will keep supporting the efforts for women, political parties, governments and civil society to increase women's political leadership and participation," Mlambo-Ngcuka added.

3/7/2014 - Senate Blocks Military Justice Improvement Act

The US Senate blocked passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The 55-45 vote on the bill, sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), reflected a bipartisan majority, but MJIA did not receive the 60 procedural votes needed to break a filibuster and progress.

"I always hoped we could do the right thing here - and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest - a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us," said Senator Gillibrand in comments delivered after the vote.

MJIA, S. 1752, would have removed the prosecution of sexually violent crimes in the military from the chain-of-command and given the responsibility to independent military prosecutors. It was originally an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 (NDAA), but Senator Gillibrand re-introduced it as a separate stand-alone measure. The Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon heavily opposed the bill.

Senator Gillibrand also thanked the effort and commitment of those who had helped her champion the bill, including especially survivors of sexual assault in the military. "We owe our gratitude to the brave survivors who, despite being betrayed by their chain of command, continue to serve their country by fighting for a justice system that will help make sure no one else suffers the same tragedy they did Their struggles, sacrifice and courage inspire me every day. They may not wear the uniform anymore, but they believe so strongly in these reforms that for a full year now, they marched the halls of this Congress, reliving the horror they endured, telling their stories, in hopes that no one else who serves our country has to suffer as they did. Tragically, today the Senate failed them." The Senator vowed, however, that "we will not walk away, we will continue to work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military."

After voting against MJIA, the Senate then voted to advance the Victim Protection Act of 2014, which would expand upon reforms passed last year - such as prohibiting defendants from using evidence of their good military character to fight charges - but would continue to allow commanders to handle sexual assault within their ranks.

President Obama in December called for a year-long review of military sexual trauma and the steps being taken to reduce it. The 2014 NDAA also included provisions to address military sexual assault. Under the 2014 NDAA, an individual in the military who sexually assaults another will face dishonorable discharge, and commanders will not be able to overturn jury decisions. Legal assistance will be provided for victims, and retaliation against a victim will be punished.

3/7/2014 - Study Finds Continuing Gender Gap in Medical Research

Although 20 years have passed since the government instituted legislation requiring adequate female representation in medical studies, a recent study finds that a significant sex and gender gap still persists in medical research.

"Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women's Health Can't Wait" by researchers at the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the Jacobs Institute at George Washington University Hospital finds that scientists still fail to account for differences between males and females. This discrepancy persists through all stages of research and affects the ability of general practitioners to provide proper care to women.

According to Dr. Paula Johnson, one of the authors of the report, studies either fail to include enough women or fail to break down the results by sex. This is particularly problematic because diseases and medications impact men and women differently. "The science that informs medicine routinely fails to consider the impact of sex and gender, and this occurs at some of the earliest stages of research -- from animal to human studies," said Johnson.

In response to this report, presented at the Women's Health Summit in Boston on Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren has publicly stated her intention to push for new laws that would create greater oversight for federal agencies and ensure greater representation of women in medical research. She aims to mandate that the number of women represented in a study is proportional to the number who have the disease.

Feminist scholars and advocates in the 1970s and 80s had pointed out that women (and even female animals) were excluded from most clinical studies and lobbied for a change in the prevailing practice. When this medical research gender gap gained public recognition, women's health advocates, feminist activists and scholars, and women members of Congress fought hard for change. In a hard won victory, President Bill Clinton signed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act of 1993, mandating that women and minorities be included in clinical studies funded by the NIH. The FDA also reversed a policy that women of childbearing age could not be in clinical trials for drug approval, and the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established women's health offices in 1994, as reported by Mary Jane Horton in the Ms. magazine Winter/Spring 2014 issue.

3/6/2014 - Michigan State University Under Federal Investigation for Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

The US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating Michigan State University (MSU) for its potential mishandling of sexual assault cases.

A student who was allegedly sexually assaulted in an MSU dorm room in August 2010 by two student athletes filed charges against the university under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. Campus police investigated the alleged rape and brought information to the county police department, which declined to prosecute. MSU has not provided any information to the press concerning whether or how the student's charges were addressed through any on-campus disciplinary process.

Occidental College professors Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks report in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. magazine, that 1 in 5 women in the US will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during her years in college. Unfortunately, many universities have mishandled sexual assault cases and now face investigations, most recently the University of California at Berkeley. To improve this situation, President Obama recently created an inter-agency task force to develop recommendations for universities to prevent campus rape and for federal agencies to hold accountable schools that do not adequately address sexual violence.

3/6/2014 - Senate Rejects Qualified Obama Nominee to Lead DOJ Civil Rights Division

The US Senate blocked President Obama's nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.

Senators voted 47-52 yesterday in opposition to Debo Adegbile, a highly qualified attorney who worked in private practice at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before holding several leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including Director of Litigation, Acting President, Director-Counsel, and Special Counsel, and serving as senior counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

Adegbile is a voting rights expert. He has twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the US Supreme Court, including in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the Court, by a 5-4 vote, invalidated the preclearance formula - meant to protect against pervasive discrimination in voting - in Section 4 of the Act. The Civil Rights Division enforces the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws that protect the right to vote.

Those opposed to the Adegbile's nomination claimed they were concerned about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal on an appeal during Adegbile's tenure at the organization. Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death. After his conviction, NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal in an appeal focusing on the propriety of the sentencing instructions given to the jury. A federal court twice sided with Abu-Jamal, finding that his constitutional rights had been violated and commuting his sentence from death to life imprisonment.

President Obama issued a strong statement calling the failure of the Senate to approve Adegbile's nomination "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant. Mr. Adegbile's qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. His unwavering dedication to protecting every American's civil and Constitutional rights under the law - including voting rights - could not be more important right now."

Barbara Arnwine, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, commented that the Senate vote "reflects a larger and extremely troubling attack on civil rights taking place on the Senate floor and Capitol Hill. The day that a nominee of this caliber is blocked for supporting voting rights, diversity programs in higher education, and the equal protection of all citizens in the criminal justice system, "signals a moment in our history that we as Americans must take a hard look at the direction we as a democracy are headed."

Civil Rights groups also expressed concern about the Senate's improper use of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case to defeat the nomination. "Today's filibuster should concern every person who care about our justice system," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Every person deserves adequate legal representation. Our system won't work if talented attorneys refuse to represent unpopular clients."

3/6/2014 - Three More Texas Abortion Clinics Forced To Close

Three more abortion clinics in Texas have been forced to close this week, thanks to extreme restrictions passed last summer. Texas had 44 abortion clinics just 3 years ago, but only 19 have survived the onslaught of restrictive laws so far. If the laws are not changed or blocked by courts in the next few months, Texas could be down to only 6 clinics in September, a frightening number in a state where there are currently about 70,000 legal abortion procedures each year. The abortion clinic closures, coupled with the closing of some 55 family planning clinics after Texas cut their funding, has already created a crisis in availability of reproductive health services. Already, experts, such as Amy Hagstrom, Founder of the Whole Women's Health, are reporting that some Texas women are resorting to dangerous self-induced or illegal abortions.

"As a result of additional provisions of this law, the number will likely decrease to six as of September 1," Charlotte Taft, the director of the Abortion Care Network said in a statement. "Services will only be in the largest cities. There will be hundreds of miles without any safe abortion care. With a population of nearly 27 million people, this is a state of emergency for Texas women."

The law in question, HB 2, passed last summer and has been kept in place after several ongoing court battles. It restricts the prescription of medication abortion, bans abortion after 20 weeks, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles, and mandates that facilities where abortion is performed meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

Of these regulations, the admitting privileges requirement and surgical center standards are the most onerous. The admitting privileges requirement is a catch-22 law. The abortion clinic doctors have simply been refused admitting privileges. Doctors are not receiving admitting privileges because of political pressure - and some doctors cannot receive them because they have to be flown in from other areas because of threats to local doctors. What's more, in the rare case of a complication requiring hospital admission, the hospital must admit the patient, whether or not the doctor has admitting privileges at that hospital. In addition, the surgical center standards impose high costs for unnecessary structural and operational changes, and very little time to adhere to them.

The three clinics that closed this week were located in communities with high poverty rates and many uninsured or underinsured residents. Two were in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the United States, which now does not have even one reproductive health clinic left. Rio Grande women will be forced to travel two and a half hours to reach the nearest abortion clinic. The dozens of clinic closures in Texas have had a significant impact on low-income and rural women who often do not have the money or means of transportation to travel long distances to a clinic.

3/5/2014 - USDA Expands Access to Healthy Food for Low-Income Women And Children

Two million women and seven million children will now have greater access to a variety of nutritious food options, thanks to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) expansion of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The revision of the program - which provides supplemental food vouchers to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women, and infants and children through the age of five - began in 2007 when fruit and vegetable allowances were introduced, and was finalized last week. Previously, women using the program vouchers could only buy limited basics such as milk, infant formula, eggs, bread and tuna fish, among other items. The comprehensive expansion will allow women to use food vouchers to purchase more whole grain items, yogurt as a partial milk substitute, and fresh produce instead of jarred infant food for older children. It will also boost each child's fruit and vegetable purchase allowance by 30 percent, or $2 per month, and it will give states and local WIC agencies more flexibility to decide what to offer.

"The updates to the WIC food package make pivotal improvements to the program and better meet the diverse nutritional needs of mothers and their young children," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. According to the USDA, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already shown greater health outcomes and lower obesity rates in low-income preschoolers that are possibly linked to these changes.

This is the first comprehensive revision of WIC since 1980, and it coincides with the program's 40th anniversary. The changes are based on more modern nutrition science and recommendations from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine and the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They will be implemented in phases through April 2015.

3/5/2014 - Wisconsin City Council Passes 160-Foot Buffer Zone Ordinance

The Madison, Wisconsin city council unanimously passed a buffer zone ordinance last week to protect people entering or exiting healthcare clinics, including women's reproductive healthcare clinics, in the city. The new ordinance will require a 160-foot buffer zone around all healthcare clinics and a floating 8-foot buffer zone around people entering the clinics, with fines up to $750 for those who violate the boundaries.

"No one attempting to access any type of health care should be greeted with physical confrontation, protesters in their face, or forcing leaflets into their hands," said Janet Dye, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. "Madison's newly passed buffer zone will protect patient privacy and dignity while accessing health care."

Just after the ordinance passed, anti-abortion group, Madison Vigil for Life, filed a legal challenge to the law, claiming that it violates the First Amendment, and asked a federal judge to issue an immediate injunction. The court rejected that request, leaving the law in place pending the resolution of the case.

Clinic safety buffer zones are also a focus of the US Supreme Court this term. In the coming months, the Court will decide the fate of a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot safety buffer zone around women's reproductive health clinics. The Court heard arguments in McCullen v Coakley in January. The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) joined other women's and civil rights organizations to file an amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts law. FMF brought the first lawsuit in the nation on buffer zones to the US Supreme Court in 1994. That case, Madsen v. Women's Health Center, established the constitutionality of an injunction creating a clinic safety buffer zone in Florida.

3/4/2014 - FDA Broadens Access to Emergency Contraception Over-the-Counter

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced last week that generic versions of Plan B One Step will now be available over-the-counter to women of all ages.

The FDA removed age and point-of-sale restrictions on Teva Pharmaceutical's Plan B One Step in June 2013, but the agency also gave Teva a three-year protection from generic competition, meaning that generic versions of the emergency contraception (EC) could only be obtained behind the pharmacy counter and only be obtained without a prescription by women over 17 years old. By retaining these restrictions, the FDA effectively limited access for low-income women and girls.

Kathleen Uhl, Acting Director of the Office of Generic Drugs in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Center for Drug Evaluation and Research announced the policy shift, stating that the FDA would lift the restrictions on generic competitors of Plan B One Step effective immediately. Although generic pills will have a label indicating the medicine is intended for people 17 and older, ID is no longer a requirement for access.

"This is a significant leap forward in obtaining full over-the-counter status for emergency contraception and we commend the FDA for this decision," said Jessica Arons, President and CEO of Reproductive Health Technologies Project. "EC can be used safely and effectively by people of all ages and it should be available without unnecessary and arbitrary barriers."

3/4/2014 - Marissa Alexander Now Faces Up To 60 Years in Prison

Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was imprisoned for firing warning shots against her abusive husband, will face up to 60 years of prison during her re-trial in July.

Alexander was initially sentenced to 20 years for firing warning shots during an altercation with Rico Gray, her estranged and formerly abusive husband. Nobody was injured when Alexander fired the shots into the air, although according to Alexander, Gray was threatening her life at the time. Alexander's initial sentence reflected three 20-year sentences to be served concurrently, but Florida state prosecutor Angela Corey will now seek to sentence Alexander to consecutive sentences totaling 60 years in prison.

"Remember that this entire case boils down to a woman defending her life from her husband who attacked her, strangled her, threatened to kill her, whose beatings have sent her to the hospital and likely caused her to have premature labor," said Sumayya Fire, a Victim Advocate with Free Marissa Now. "Now [Alexander is] facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense. That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves."

Corey unsuccessfully prosecuted George Zimmerman for murder charges after he killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin, but her stance on Alexander has angered many advocates and Florida residents. Like Zimmerman, Alexander is being prosecuted under the state's infamous Stand Your Ground law, which allows Floridians to resort to deadly violence when they believe their lives may be in imminent danger, and qualifies such actions as self-defense even if no attempt to retreat was made. Unlike Zimmerman, Alexander has been unable to persuade officials in her case that she was acting in self-defense, despite Gray's own admission that he has previously threatened her life.

A Florida appeals court in September ordered a new trial for Alexander after finding that the trial judge had issued improper jury instructions on self-defense. Alexander, who has three children, was released on bail last year.

3/4/2014 - Students File Two Federal Complaints Against UC Berkeley for Mishandling Campus Sexual Assault Cases

Thirty-one current and former students filed a federal Title IX complaint against the University of California at Berkeley last week, alleging that the university had discouraged reporting of campus sexual assault, failed to inform victims of their rights, and had mishandled sexual assault cases being heard through the school's disciplinary process. The complaint comes after a student government ruling last April of no confidence in the university's sexual assault policies as well as an investigation into four public California universities by the state auditor.

This is the second complaint filed by Berkeley students against the university. An earlier complaint, filed by nine students in May 2013, alleged that the university was purposefully under-reporting sexually violent crimes on campus in violation of the Clery Act. The US Department of Education has yet to respond to the students' May complaint, prompting, in part, this most recent complaint, which now includes 22 new student and alumni testimonies.

"Neither the Department of Education nor UC Berkeley have made the efforts necessary to address the pervasive culture of sexual violence on our campus," said Sofie Karasek, one of the students who filed the complaint. "This is not only disappointing; it is also dangerous for the students who attend college here, and is representative of a larger problem: the federal government is not adequately enforcing its own laws."

Occidental College professors Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks report in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Ms. magazine, that 1 in 5 women in the US will experience a rape or an attempted rape at some point during her years in college. "But there's hope and evidence that this situation is changing, as a reinvigorated campus anti-rape movement is burgeoning across the country," they write. "The tools of this movement - Title IX complaints, the Clery Act, group lawsuits and social media - have effectively brought school mishandling of sexual assault and rape into the national discourse."

Although UC Berkeley did not formally comment on the complaint last week, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a statement announcing a new university position created to investigate sexual assault claims and help survivors navigate the reporting process as well as a new policy allowing victims to appeal decisions in their internal cases.

2/28/2014 - Federal Judge Strikes Down Texas Gay Marriage Ban

A federal judge in San Antonio yesterday declared Texas' ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

US District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that the state's ban on gay marriage deprived same-sex couples of due process and equal protection by stigmatizing their relationships and treating them differently than their opposite-sex counterparts. "Tradition, alone, cannot form a rational basis for a law," he wrote. In his decision, Garcia addressed common tropes against marriage equality, finding that "limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples fails the welfare of children" and that "procreation is not and has never been a qualification for marriage."

"Today's court decisions is not made in defiance of the great people of Texas or the Texas legislature, but in compliance with US Constitution and Supreme Court precedent," Garcia wrote in his decision [PDF], citing the Supreme Court's ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional last June and the growing marriage equality movement across the nation.

Garcia issued a stay on his preliminary injunction against a 2003 law and a 2005 constitutional amendment, meaning no marriages can take place following the ruling. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot - who is running for governor - has said the state will appeal. Texas Democrats, however, celebrated the decision.

"Those in control of this state need to stop fighting the future," said Texas Senate Democratic Chairman Kirk Watson of Austin. "They must stop governing by fear. They must stop pretending there's some security blanket in laws that treat others unfairly."

The case was filed by two Texas couples: two women with a child looking for the state to recognize their out-of-state marriage and two men who wished to marry.

2/27/2014 - Arizona Governor Vetoes Bill Permitting Use of Religion as Cover to Discriminate

Stating yesterday that Arizona "Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona," Governor Jan Brewer (R) vetoed the bill, which would have allowed Arizona businesses to refuse services to individuals based on religious objections.

The bill was strongly opposed by LGBT groups who have seen businesses in other states - such as florists, photographers, and bakers - refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. Members of the Arizona business community also opposed the bill, as did politicians on both sides.

With today's veto, Governor Brewer spared her state from institutional discrimination and economic catastrophe. Make no mistake, there is no better way to doom jobs in a state than by signing license-to-discriminate bills, said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which delivered 65,000 petition signatures urging Governor Brewer to veto the bill. The bipartisan outpouring of opposition to this bill is all the proof you need that this country isn't turning backwards. Governor Brewer did the right thing in stopping this assault on businesses and the LGBT community and we call on her and the legislature--and governors and legislators in other states--to resist any attempt to give license to discrimination.

The State of Arizona began losing money shortly after the bill passed in the state legislature. The Hispanic National Bar Association announced that it would no longer hold its annual convention in Arizona in 2015 over concerns about the law. Other economic opportunities for the state were also threatened: the National Football League announced it would consider moving next year's Super Bowl from Arizona to another state; the Arizona and Lodging and Tourism Association received hundreds of calls from tourists and business travelers intending to boycott travel to Arizona; and several major corporations, including Apple, American Airlines, and AT&T, Intel, and Verizon called for a veto after expressing significant concerns.

Even as the Arizona measure failed, the US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments March 25 from two for-profit companies that similarly seek to discriminate based on religious grounds. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood are challenging the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), arguing that they should be allowed to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control because of religious objections.

"Religion should not be used as a cover for profit-making businesses to discriminate against women," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal, "nor should women be held hostage to their boss' personal religious beliefs."

Tell the Supreme Court to let women, not bosses, make women's personal decisions about birth control and health! Sign our petition, and then join us outside the Court on March 25 to make your voice heard.