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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.

2/26/2014 - Massachusetts Governor Issues Emergency Regulations Banning Shackling of Pregnant Inmates

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed emergency regulations last week banning the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women.

The regulations will "immediately prohibit the state corrections department from shackling pregnant inmates at the ankle and waist during their second or third trimesters, during labor and childbirth, and immediately postpartum," according to RH Reality Check. They will expire after 90 days.

Deval also urged the state legislature to pass the Anti-Shackling Bill before the regulations expire. It would ban shackling and provide comprehensive health care for pregnant inmates, and it is currently moving through committees.

"Shackling is unsafe and inhumane, and it is shocking that this practice continues in 2014," said Megan Amundson, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts."We applaud the Governor's initiative to prohibit this barbaric practice and join him in urging Massachusetts lawmakers to send the Anti-Shackling Bill to his desk to be signed into law this session and ensure consistent basic medical standards to support healthy pregnancies and deliveries for all pregnant women in the Commonwealth."

Shackling increases the risk of falling and injury prior to giving birth and the risk of blood clots post-partum. Restraints can interfere with medical professionals' ability to care for patients during labor, especially in emergency situations.

Currently, only 18 states have laws banning shackling. Five states have introduced legislation to prohibit it so far this year.

2/25/2014 - Court Rules Against Notre Dame's Contraception Mandate Appeal

In a 2-1 ruling on Friday, the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals for Chicago denied the University of Notre Dame's request for immediate relief from complying with the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraception mandate, upholding a lower court's ruling.

The Roman Catholic university filed a lawsuit in May 2012 against the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming that complying with the ACA's contraception mandate would violate its religious beliefs. The government actually exempts religious employers from having to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees; they must only fill out a simple certification that such coverage would violate their religious principles, and a third party administrator will cover the contraceptives instead.

"If the government is entitled to require that female contraceptives be provided to women free of charge, we have trouble understanding how signing the form that declares Notre Dame's authorized refusal to pay for contraceptives for its students or staff, and mailing the authorization document to those companies, which under federal law are obligated to pick up the tab, could be thought to 'trigger' the provision of female contraceptives," Judge Richard Posner wrote in an opinion. The court also found that the university had not shown that compliance created a substantial burden.

The Affordable Care Act has made it much easier for women to get affordable, quality health care coverage that fits their needs. 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.

TAKE ACTION: Over 40 profit-making companies have tried to prevent women from accessing free contraceptives by filing lawsuits, and some have made their way to the Supreme Court. Tell the Supreme Court: My Body, My BC!

2/25/2014 - Ohio Passes Laws Ending or Restricting Early and Absentee Voting

Last Wednesday, the state legislature passed a bill that would eliminate the Golden Week, a 6-day early voting period wherein individuals could register and cast their votes prior to Election Day. It was signed into law on Friday by Governor John Kasich, who also recently approved a law making it more difficult for voters to receive absentee ballots and more likely that such ballots will be thrown out.

In 2012, nearly 60,000 Ohio voters took advantage of the Golden Week. The flexibility provided by this program facilitated voting by elderly individuals, minorities, low-income persons, and others who have limited time or transportation capabilities.

The implications of the new restrictions are multiple. The changes could disenfranchise a large number of people who might now be unable to access polls and participate in elections, such as elderly persons or military members. It will also likely increase waiting periods at the polls on Election Day, deterring voting even further. With Ohio remaining a key presidential swing state, the voting restrictions could have national impacts if they remain in place.

In response to the passage of these laws, the state Democratic Party has already announced an intention to sue to prevent them from taking effect. "This is unconscionable, inexcusable and likely illegal under the voting rights acts," said state Rep. Debbie Phillips.

2/24/2014 - Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case to Limit Access to Women's Healthcare Centers

The United States Supreme Court announced today that it will not review a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals protecting the right of Arizona Medicaid recipients to visit healthcare providers who also perform abortions.

Planned Parenthood sued to prevent Arizona House Bill 2800 from taking effect. The law would have prevented doctors and clinics that perform abortions from being Medicaid-eligible providers. According to reports, the law would have stopped Medicaid reimbursements to more than 80 Arizona hospitals and clinics that provide a wide range of women's healthcare services, including birth control, cancer screenings, and STD treatment, and would have impacted thousands of low-income women in the state.

"The men and women of this state have the right to see the health care provider they deem is best for them," said Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. "Thousands of low-income women rely on Planned Parenthood for breast and cervical cancer screenings, birth control, and other basic health care. Politics should never interfere with a woman's access to vital services."

The bill was passed by the Arizona legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2012, but Planned Parenthood challenged it before it could be enforced. The Ninth Circuit ruled in August 2013 that the bill violates the federal Medicaid Act requirement that gives patients the freedom to choose their healthcare providers. The state of Arizona then tried to appeal to the Supreme Court without success.

According to Planned Parenthood Action Fund, "since 2011, eight federal courts - six federal district courts and two courts of appeals - have ruled that states may not disqualify Planned Parenthood from providing preventive health services. The Supreme Court has now twice declined to review these decisions." The Supreme Court also recently declined to review another Arizona anti-abortion bill that would have banned abortion 20 weeks after a woman's last menstrual period.

2/21/2014 - Republican Senators Introduce Bill to Limit Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses

Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a bill last week that would give states the power to decide whether to give married lesbian and gay couples the same federal benefits that heterosexual married couples receive.

The introduction of the so-called State Marriage Defense Act, S. 2024, comes on the heels of Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that the Department of Justice will provide married same-sex couples with equal protection under the law - even if those marriages are not recognized in the state where the couple lives. According to a press release issued by the Senators, the purpose of S. 2024 is to "protect states from an out of control administration that is seeking to force same sex marriage upon states." Same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and momentum is growing.

"This is just another attempt to undermine the valid marriages of loving same-sex couples," said Fred Sainz, the vice president of communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign. "We will works with our allies on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle, to make sure this bill does not pass."

Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX-14) in January introduced similar legislation, H.R. 3829, that was "strongly endorsed" by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

2/20/2014 - REPORT: Working Single Mothers Are Disproportionately Likely to Live in Poverty

A new report finds that working single mothers, who head up more households than ever across the nation, are more likely to be in poverty than their married counterparts.

The Working Poor Families Project's policy brief "Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Future" [PDF] found that out of 7.1 million families headed by women, 4.1 million lived in poverty, encompassing 8.5 million children. 39 percent of low-income working families across the nation are managed by a single mother, and that number is heavily influenced by factors like race: 65 percent of African-American low-income working families, 31 percent of Latino low-income working families, and 45 percent of low-income working families of other races are under the helm of single women.

For many working single mothers, their economic challenges are compounded by various factors. Education is becoming more and more unattainable for low-income women, especially women of color, and most single mothers are unable to complete their education due to their resposiblities at home. Congress' cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) make it more challenging for single moms to get by, as do state-by-state failures in the Temporary Asisistance for Needy Families program. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, many of them lacked health insurance to cover medical costs as well.

Most of all, these women - a majority of whom are employed full-time - face discrimination and pay inequity in the workplace and are siloed in lower-wage fields. According to the policy brief, "even full-time hours are not enough to lift families out of poverty."

Although the brief only outlines state-level policy recommendations to combat a rising number of economically disadvantaged families in the nation, including increasing access to education, Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and raising the minimum wage, federal-level policies could also have a big impact on the lives of single mothers. The FAMILY Act, which expands paid family medical leave, would help women raising families independently to maintain employment if their children become ill. President Obama also encouraged employers across the country to pay their workers equally without regard to sex or gender in his State of the Union speech this January, which would help low-income women of all races, especially women of color, and strengthen the economy.

2/20/2014 - 25-Foot Buffer Zone Bill Passes New Hampshire Senate

The New Hampshire Senate voted 15-9 Wednesday to pass a bill that would create a 25-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, with 4 Republicans joining all 11 Democrats in the chamber to vote in its favor.

Buffer zones are critical in protecting patients from verbal and physical harassment, violence, and anti-abortion protesters who may block their path into a clinic. Since the beginning of 2013, clinic patients in New Hampshire have filed over 60 complaints that detail harassment and intimidation.

"New Hampshire cannot afford even one act of violence toward a woman and we should not tolerate the current harassment happening outside reproductive health care facilities in our state," said Sara Persechino, the policy and community relations director for NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire, in a statement. "This commonsense legislation is a step in the right direction for protecting patients seeking safe, legal abortion care from violence, harassment, and intimidation."

SB 319 now moves to New Hampshire's House.

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley on whether local governments can create safety buffer zones around reproductive health clinics in January, but a verdict has not yet been announced.

2/19/2014 - Iowa House Votes to Ban Telemedicine Abortions

Last week, the Iowa House passed a ban on telemedical abortion within the state. The Iowa Board of Medicine last year voted to ban the practice, but a state court judge, finding no evidence that telemedicine abortions were unsafe, temporarily blocked the Board's new rules, allowing the practice to continue.

Iowa's telemedicine abortion program allows women to consult with doctors through video technology before being prescribed the abortion-inducing pill. It has been heralded as a safe and effective form of reproductive health care since its implementation five years ago, and allows women living in rural areas to obtain the medication without having to travel.

"Since 2008, more than 5,000 Iowa women have accessed medication abortion delivered through telemedicine, with zero serious complications reported," said Erin Davison-Rippey, a policy analyst for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. "The bottom line is, HF 2175 only makes it more difficult for a woman to access safe, legal care, and every woman deserves to have access to safe health care, regardless of her zip code."

The bill has yet to pass the state senate, but opponents of the legislation are hopeful that the Democrat-controlled body will kill it before it can become a law.

The telemedicine abortion ban is part of a wave of anti-choice legislation in Iowa, which includes an effort to create a cause of action for abortion distress.

2/19/2014 - Texas Closes Abortion Clinic And Suspends Doctor Over Admitting Privileges Law

Officials in Texas have forced a Houston abortion clinic to close and suspended the license of the clinic's medical director and only abortion provider for failing to comply with a new admitting privileges law.

The law, which survived a court battle over the past year, requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. Officials decided to close the Affordable Women's Medical Center after two unannounced inspections of the facility revealed that Dr. Theodore M. Herring Jr. did not have admitting privileges, so he "unlawfully" performed over 250 abortions. Although Herring, who has been a licensed doctor for almost 40 years, created a plan to correct his lack of admitting privileges over several months, it was deemed inadequate.

Proponents of the law claim it protects women's health, but admitting privileges have no rational relationship to improving patient care, treatment, or outcomes, and place an undue burden on women seeking abortion services in Texas. And in Texas, the law did not provide enough time for doctors to obtain admitting privileges.

"This is part of a statewide effort, through medically unnecessary provisions, to drive providers out of business," said Fatimah Gifford, the spokeswoman for Whole Women's Health. "Between clinics forced to shut down and actions like this, the law is having a huge effect on access to abortion."

The Supreme Court refused to block the law in November.The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on its constitutionality, but it has not issued a ruling yet.

Texas has grown increasingly hostile to reproductive rights and access over the past few years. Women's health clinics that offer abortions have been excluded from state funding for women's health, and they have been required to abide by Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) that are impossible to follow, causing many to close.

2/18/2014 - Kansas Senate Comes Out Against Anti-Gay Legislation

After the Kansas House voted in favor of a bill that would offer legal protection to individuals and businesses who wished to deny services to gay and lesbian individuals and couples - particularly those wishing to get married, - the Senate decided Friday that they would not approve it.

"I believe the intent of the House was to protect religious liberties," said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita. "We respect that, but the business implications are going to harm the practice of employment in Kansas." She added, "Public service needs to remain public service for the entire public."

If signed into law, HB 2453 would allow the refusal of government services to same-sex couples, as well as private services such as access to stores and medical services, making LGBTQ people effectively second-class citizens. Despite the Senate's announcement, some are afraid that the bill may be slightly amended and then passed.

2/14/2014 - President Obama Increases Minimum Wage for Federal Contractors

President Obama signed an Executive Order Wednesday increasing the minimum wage for new federal contractors to $10.10 per hour.

"It's the right thing to do," President Obama said in an email announcement. "But what's more, companies have found that when their employees earn more, they're more motivated, they work harder, and they stick around longer. You should expect the same of your federal government." The increase will apply to new contractors.

Obama announced in his State of the Union speech in January that he will push Congress to pass the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which would raise the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 by 2016 in three phases for all US workers. The bill is still awaiting action, but if it passes, 28 million workers would benefit, many of whom will be lifted out of poverty.

With the current minimum wage, a full-time worker earns only $14,500 per year, below the federal poverty line even for a family of two. Fast food workers and other minimum wage earners have been fighting for the past two years to raise the minimum wage even higher to $15, arguing that the proposed $10.10 would still not provide a living wage.

Twenty-one states have taken action on their own and now have higher minimum wages than the federal wage. Virginia may be the next to increase it, after the state Senate just approved a bill to increase the state's minimum from $7.25 to $9.25 by 2015.

2/14/2014 - Judge Declares Virginia Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

A federal judge declared Virginia's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional last night, overturning a state constitutional amendment added by voters in 2006 and ruling that Virginia must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

"The plaintiffs [two same-sex couples] ask for nothing more than to exercise a right that is enjoyed by the vast majority of Virginia's adult citizens," Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen wrote. "They seek simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond."

The decision is stayed pending appeal, meaning same-sex couples will not be able to marry until the case is resolved in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The state did not want couples to marry then have their marriages temporarily halted by an appeal, like what happened in Utah.

Because federal courts in several states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma, have voided similar same-sex marriage bans, the Supreme Court is also expected to take up the case soon.

2/13/2014 - Virginia Senate Passes Bill To Repeal Ultrasound Law

The Virginia Senate voted to pass a bill yesterday that would repeal a law mandating medically unnecessary ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion.

SB 617 tied with a 20-20 vote based on party lines. The new Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam broke the tie to vote in favor of the bill.

"Women--and men--from across Virginia have been clear: they're done with politically motivated bills that attack women's health," said Cianti Stewart-Reid, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. "Those Senators who stood with women today and voted to repeal the medically unnecessary ultrasound requirement have shown they understand the will of Virginia voters." The bill will now be considered by the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates.

Pro-choice Democrats, including Northam, Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, and several Senators swept the November state elections, winning with the support of women, especially young, unmarried, minority women.

A second pro-choice bill did not pass the Senate Tuesday, losing with a vote of 18-22. SB 618 would have repealed an existing law that bans providers on the federal insurance exchanges from covering abortions.

2/12/2014 - Federal Court Hears Challenge to Texas Ban on Same-Sex Marriage

Two same-sex couples in Texas have asked a federal judge to hear their case challenging the 2005 amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The couples will appear today in a San Antonio federal district court.

Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, both military veterans, were married in Massachusetts in 2001. Now living in Austin, Texas, the couple was not allowed to jointly adopt a child because Texas law does not recognize the legality of their marriage. Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss have been a couple for 17 years. The two Plano men would like to marry in Texas but were denied a marriage license last fall.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) - currently running for governor of the state - will defend the amendment and has stated that Texas has the right to establish its own marriage policies. The US Supreme Court ruled in US v. Windsor that the federal government could not deny same-sex couples married under state laws the benefits available to married heterosexual couples. It did not address the constitutionality of state laws prohibiting equal marriage.

"Our belief is the arc of equal protection cases points directly to recognizing that people have the right to marry regardless of gender," said Neel Lane, attorney for the plaintiffs. "Gays and lesbians are not afforded access to marriage and all the benefits from it. That is a denial of equal protection of the law. It is unequal when some people are not permitted to do what most others are permitted to do. And there's no basis for denying them that right."

Just this week, US Attorney General Eric Holder released a memo to Department of Justice staff that the Department would give same-sex marriages equal protection under the law, even in states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. Holder's announcement follows other policy changes at the Department of Defense, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security to recognize same-sex marriages on the federal level.

2/11/2014 - Justice Dept Will Recognize Same-Sex Marriages in All Programs

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) released a memo to its employees Monday that same-sex marriages will be given equal protection under the law in all of its programs - even if the marriages are not recognized in the state where the same-sex couple lives. The announcement will allow same-sex couples to enjoy federal benefits through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, and the US Trustee Program.

Announcing the new policy at the Human Rights Campaign's Greater New York Gala on Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. also noted that the DOJ would recognize same-sex couples' marital privilege not to testify in civil and criminal cases and allow federal inmates in same-sex marriages to visit and correspond with their spouses and enjoy furloughs during a crisis involving a spouse. "The expansion will include 34 states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal, granting expanded access to benefits and rights afforded to opposite-sex couples to millions of Americans.

"In every courthouse, in every proceeding and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States," said Holder, "they will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections, and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law."

The DOJ announcement follows other policy changes by the Department of Defense, Office of Personnel Management, Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security, which were prompted by the US Supreme Court's historic decision in US v. Windsor.

Holder went on to relate the victory to those of the Civil Rights Movement. "We are, right now, in the middle of marking a number of 50-year anniversaries of key milestones in the Civil Rights Movement," he said. "And yet, as all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: my commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity runs just as deep. Just as was true during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher. And so the Justice Department's role in confronting discrimination must be as aggressive today as it was in Robert Kennedy's time. As Attorney General, I will never let this Department be simply a bystander during this important moment in history. We will act."

2/10/2014 - Military Sexual Assault Bill Expected To Come To Vote This Week

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), which removes prosecution of sexually violent crimes in the military from the chain-of-command, is expected to come to a vote in the Senate this week.

The MJIA, which was previously part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) but will now be voted on as a stand-alone measure as S. 1752 , would move "the decision whether to prosecute any crime punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, with the exception of crimes that are uniquely military in nature."

Military sexual assault has reached epidemic proportions. An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults occurred in 2012, according to a report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program of the Department of Defense. 25 percent of women and 27 percent of men who experienced unwanted sexual contact said the offender was in their military chain of command, and 50 percent of female victims said that they did not report the crime because they thought nothing would come of their report.

"The men and women of our military deserve better," Gillibrand told The Washington Post. "They deserve to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases, and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way." Gillibrand says she now has 53 Senators who have agreed to vote in the bill's favor. She will need to have 60 to ensure it is not defeated by a filibuster.

The Obama administration has been taking other steps to prevent and reduce sexual assault in the military as well. 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. Obama also called for a year-long review of military sexual trauma and the steps being taken to reduce it in December.

TAKE ACTION: Help us take on military sexual assault in the military. Email your senators to tell them that we must change the current system of handling sexual assault cases.

2/10/2014 - Thousands March in North Carolina Against Restrictive GOP Policies

Around 80,000 to 100,000 people from 32 states marched in Raleigh, North Carolina on Saturday to protest the state's GOP-led legislature's extremist attacks on human and voting rights and vital public assistance programs.

The "Moral March on Raleigh," organized by Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People's Assembly Coalition, was the "largest civil rights rally in the South since tens of thousands of voting rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act," said Ari Berman, a writer for The Nation who attended the march. Moral Mondays, smaller weekly protest gatherings of activists against the measures, have been ongoing since last year.

Protesters marched from Shaw University to the state Capitol holding signs that called out state lawmakers for enacting restrictive policies regarding abortion, voting rights, labor, and education, among others. In particular, since taking over the state government for the first time in a century, North Carolina Republicans passed extreme anti-choice and voter suppression laws, diverted millions from public education to voucher schools, and cut taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent, among other changes.

2/6/2014 - Single-Sex Education Benefits Challenged By New Study

A study published in the Psychological Bulletin on Monday challenges claims of the benefits of single-sex education.

The meta-analysis examined 184 studies representing the testing of 1.6 million students from 21 nations, then selected 57 of those that corrected for factors like parental education and economics for further investigation. Several specific areas were examined, such as general school achievement, school attitudes, educational aspirations, and self-concept.

The authors found that many claims of single-sex schooling advocates, such as that girls and boys will perform better in different subjects when segregated, did not hold up. "The theoretical approach termed 'girl power' argues that girls lag behind boys in some subjects in coed classrooms," said co-author Erin Pahlke, PhD, of Whitman College. "This is not supported by our analysis, and moreover, girls' educational aspirations were not higher in single-sex schools."

The study authors detailed disadvantages to single-sex education as well. "There is a mountain of research in social psychology showing that segregation by race or gender feeds stereotypes, and that's not what we want," said Janet Hyde, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The adult world is an integrated world, in the workplace and in the family, and the best thing we can do is provide that environment for children in school as we prepare them for adulthood."

Check out Feminist Majority Foundation's Education Equality Toolkit to learn more about sex segregation in schools.

2/5/2014 - Family Medical Leave Act Turns 21 Today

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which mandates that certain employees receive job-protected unpaid leave to care for themselves, an immediate family member, a newborn, or a newly adopted child. Some 100 million U.S. workers have enjoyed time off because of the FMLA, and most employers have reported no negative impact on business profitability or productivity because of the law.

However, too many people have been unable to enjoy FMLA's benefits. Most worksites are not covered by the FMLA. The law applies only to public agencies and private sector employers with 50 or more employees. And many workers are not covered by the law. It only covers employees who have worked for the same employer for at least one year and who worked 1,250 hours the previous year. A 2012 study of the impact of the FMLA found that around 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible for guaranteed unpaid leave. Even if someone is eligible for FMLA leave, it may not be affordable. Nearly 50 percent of workers with an unmet need for leave explain that they cannot afford to take time off.

The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced in December 2013 by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would significantly improve workers' ability to take leave by allowing works to take paid time off to address a serious illness of their own or to care for a family member, new baby or adopted child. Employees would be able to earn up to 12 weeks of paid family leave each year through the creation of a national insurance fund. Both employers and employees would contribute to the fund, which would be administered through a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave within the Social Security Administration. All workers who are eligible for Social Security disability benefits would be covered by the law.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your representatives no one should have to risk financial insecurity to care for a loved one.

2/5/2014 - Senate Cuts Food Stamps For 850,000 Households

850,000 households across the country - encompassing 1.7 million people - are now set to lose around $90 a month in food stamp benefits because of the US Senate vote last night on the 2014 Farm Bill.

The bill, which passed in the House last week, passed 68-32 in the Senate and includes an $8.7 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. President Barack Obama has indicated that he intends to sign the legislation, hailing the "strong bipartisan vote."

"This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors, and veterans who deserve better from Congress,while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts." said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, who voted against the legislation. Thirty percent of the cuts could come from New York state alone.

The cuts come on the heels of a recent $11 cut from food stamp checks that went into effect in November. Over the course of the recession, the amount of families relying on food stamps to make ends meet has ballooned, and with each cut to the program, food pantries report larger crowds. Poor families, which are often headed by single mothers, are hit the hardest by cuts. Women are more likely to live in poverty than men across the United States.

"It's absolutely devastating," said President Sheena Wright of the United Way in New York. "You are going to have to make a decision on what you are going to do, buy food or pay rent." Wright reportedly expects "a surge of hungry people" due to the program cuts.