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The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) released a study in the medical journal Contraception finding that access to abortion has been significantly reduced since the state enacted it omnibus anti-abortion law HB2.
The study, released last week, details the striking impact that HB2 has had on abortion access in Texas. The researchers collected data on abortion services for the first six months after one of HB2's four provisions, which requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic, went into effect in November 2013. They found that the abortion rate decreased at an unusually rapid rate of 13 percent, likely because of the large number of clinic's that closed or stopped providing abortion care. In May 2013, there were 41 facilities providing abortion throughout the state, but 20 of those clinics have now either closed to stopped providing abortion services.
When another provision requiring facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers goes into effect this September, the researchers predict that the six or seven facilities that already meet the standards are the only ones that will be able to remain open. But less than one-fourth of abortion procedures took place at an ambulatory surgical center during the research period, so they do not expect those clinics to be able to handle a four-fold increase in abortion procedures.
"There is no evidence that any of the provisions [of HB2] has improved the safety of abortion in the state," said Daniel Grossman, the lead researcher and an obstetrician-gynecologist and Vice President for Research at Ibis Reproductive Health, in a statement. "They have just made it harder for women to access the services they want and need."
Smaller cities and rural areas have been hit the hardest. All of the clinics in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have closed, restricting access to reproductive health care so much that some consider it a human rights violation. The number of women of reproductive age living over 200 miles from a clinic providing abortions has increased from 10,000 in May 2013 to 290,000 in April 2014. That number is expected to increase to 752,000 when the ambulatory surgical center provision goes into effect. Such great distances can force women to delay care, because they cannot afford the higher costs of travel and lodging or the time they have to take off work, and because they may not have access to reliable transportation. Many women have already been forced to resort to illegal abortion methods, such as obtaining abortion-inducing drugs on the black market.
HB2 was passed by the Texas legislature in a special session in July 2013, after earlier being defeated by a filibuster. Its two other provisions ban abortion at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization, and require providers to use the Food and Drug Administration's outdated protocol for medical abortions.
7/28/2014 - Wisconsin Will Not Enforce Contraceptive Coverage Law If Employers Raise Religious Objections
Citing the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) announced that it will no longer be enforcing the contraceptive benefit rule for employers with religious objections.
Current state law in Wisconsin requires companies with insurance plans to cover services including outpatient care, preventive treatment, prescription drugs, and FDA-approved contraceptives prescribed by a healthcare provider. According to OCI, however, the state will now allow employers with religious objections to birth control to opt out of providing coverage. Instead, insurers will have to provide separate contraceptive coverage to those employees who seek the coverage.
An OCI spokesman claimed that the change was required after the Hobby Lobby decision, but legal experts from the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) issued a legal memo last week explaining that "Wisconsin state law is a separate legal requirement on insurance plans in the state that is not directly affected by the Hobby Lobby decision."
"It appears that the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance is making up a new standard that does not comply with either state law or federal law," said Gretchen Borchelt, Senior Counsel and Director of State Reproductive Health Policy at NWLC.
Borchelt also warned that the change in contraceptive coverage could limit accessibility of birth control for some women in Wisconsin. "Putting the burden on the employees by forcing them to seek out and ask for a plan that covers contraception stigmatizes a critical health care service, ... raises concerns about privacy, and could be an insurmountable barrier for some women."
Wisconsin State Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) called the OCI announcement another attempt by Republican Governor Scott Walker to inhibit access to birth control. In an interview with Wisconsin Radio Network, Rep. Taylor said that Governor Walker, "had no authority to unilaterally decide that this administration is not going to enforce a law passed democratically through the Legislature."
In 2011, Governor Walker included a provision in the biennial budget bill that would have repealed the state's Contraceptive Equity Law, which mandates contraceptive coverage in certain insurance plans. That provision failed along with a legislative attempt in 2013 to create a religious exemption.
7/25/2014 - Women's Equality Party Launched in New York
In November, voters in New York may elect the first Women's Equality Party ticket. Former New York State Representative Kathy Hochul, NARAL Pro-Choice New York, and the National Organization for Women-NYC announced last week they were launching efforts to create a Women's Equality Party ballot line in the state.
"The women's equality party will send a loud message that women are paying close attention this election cycle, said NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio. "Elected officials should understand that women's economic empowerment can be a driver for our economy. Our health and safety matter. What happens to women, happens to families."
The new party - which will have current Governor Andrew Cuomo on its ticket, along with Hochul as candidate for Lieutenant Governor - plans to support initiatives that are important to women, including the 10-point women's legislative agenda that the New York State Legislature failed to approve before the close of the 2013-2014 session. That legislative package included stronger laws against gender-based workplace discrimination, tougher laws on human trafficking, resources for victims of domestic violence, and an abortion provision that would match the language of Roe v. Wade.
Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York welcomed efforts to create a Women's Equality Party. "We will never see our needs addressed without representation that understands and reflects the reality and totality of women's lives," the organization said in a statement. "The Women's Equality Party is a visible reminder that New York State's women can't be discounted or dismissed."
Supporters of the Women's Equality Party must secure 15,000 signatures by August 15 before the party can appear on the ballot. The Cuomo-Hochul ticket will already appear on the Democratic, Working Families, and Independence party ballot lines. New York election laws permit major party candidates to appear under a third-party's ballot line if organizers of that party endorse the candidate.
By a vote of 12 to 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed to recommend ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to the full US Senate.
"One hundred forty six nations and the European Union have ratified the Disabilities Treaty, but it will require American leadership to ensure the treaty's protections become a reality," said Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. "The treaty embodies the highest of American standards. From the U.S. Constitution, it borrows principles of equality and the protection of minorities. From the Declaration of Independence, it reflects the unalienable right to pursue happiness. From the Americans with Disabilities Act and other landmark accessibility laws, the treaty enshrines the concept of reasonable accommodation."
The treaty, among other things, reaffirms the need for fundamental human rights for all people with disabilities, and highlights the need to recognize and respond to discrimination against those with disabilities.
Every Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of the treaty, as well as two Republicans: Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY). Voting against the Disabilities Treaty were Senators Bob Corker (R-TN), James Risch (R-ID), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Rand Paul (R-KY).
Two-thirds of the Senate, 67 Senators, must now vote in favor of the treaty before it can be ratified by the United States. The Senate previously, in 2012, failed to vote to ratify the Disabilities Treaty, by a vote of 61-38 against. All 38 opposing votes were cast by Republicans; seven voted in favor. More than 120 countries have already ratified the UN treaty.
Supporters of the Disabilities Treaty will gather on Tuesday, July 29, at 12:15pm on 3rd Street, NW between Pennsylvania Ave, NW and Maryland Ave, SW in Washington, DC for a march and rally for ratification.
7/24/2014 - From Passion to Progress Briefing Brings Together Feminist Leaders and Hundreds of Young Activists
Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) staff, two congresswomen, and over a hundred DC interns came together yesterday for FMF's Intern Student/Activist briefing in Dirksen Senate building to discuss how to put a women's rights agenda into action.
Over plates of donuts and cups coffee, participants listened to a succession of engaging and passionate speeches from congressional and feminist leaders: Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and FMF President Eleanor Smeal. Each of the speakers focused on the need for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, stressing how an ERA remains relevant and important in the light of the US Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby - that prioritized corporations over women's health and rights - as well as the continuing scourge of violence against women and the severity of the gender wage gap.
The all-star feminist lineup also addressed the crowd with their own experiences in the feminist movement and passions that keep them fighting for gender equality. "I was you once," said Rep. Speier, as she encouraged the audience to take this briefing as an opportunity to become involved, and become activists for equality. Eleanor Smeal reiterated this point, discussing how the current generation is the one that will have to continue their legacy, and although "we fight to get something passed, and then we spend the next decade or so to try and keep it on the books," equality is always goal worth fighting for, no matter how many generations it takes. Congresswoman Maloney, too, said that the students and interns sitting in the room are the next generation of feminists and activists.
Practically unprecedented in hill briefings, FMF's own interns where the primary facilitators of the event, as they spearheaded an informative and empowering panel on several modern issues facing women. Campus leadership and government relations intern Yemisi Miller-Tonnet echoed the congresswomen and Smeal in calling for action on the ERA, saying "It's up to us now to pass the ERA.:
Jennifer Lee, FMF government relations and education equity intern, followed Yemisi, discussing campus sexual assault. Campus sexual assault is a hot button issue for many college students across America, and Lee reiterated how important campus activism around this issue is, saying "The time is now, and everyone here has the right to demand more from their college or university."
Intern Paige McKinsey, who is on the education equity, government relations, and global health and rights teams at FMF, gave a passionate speech about international family planning. Mckinsey gave many devastating statistics, several from her own summer research, saying that fully funding international family planning would only cost 1 percent of our current defense budget. "I think we can spare the change," she added, pushing for increased investments in the well-being of women around the world.
The final panelist, government relations and global health and rights intern Kathleen Wilson, discussed CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which has yet to be ratified by the United States. She reiterated how "it's important not just to our women, but to women all over the globe."
The FMF interns on the panel eloquently and succinctly addressed the topics they had been researching all summer, in the hopes that the crowd would be inspired by one (or all) the topics enough to adopt it as something they could be advocates for, and bring back into discussions with their representatives, on their campuses, and in their offices. Judging by the crowd response and the questions following the panel, the briefing had inspired more than a few people; questions were asked on how to engage others in the feminist discussion, and participants asked panelists for advice on how to do so, as well as ways to start feminist groups in their communities.
Take Action! Get more involved through the FMF's Choices Feminist Campus Leadership Project or by signing up for FMF action alerts. You can also support the continued work of the FMF by donating today.
This morning, Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) led a solid crowd of Equal Rights Amendment activists and supporters just beyond the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Congressional leaders cited the Supreme Court's rulings in Burwell v.Hobby Lobby and McCullen v. Coakleyas key reasons for calling the rally. "Recent Supreme Court decisions have sent women's rights back to the Stone Age," Rep. Speier said in a release issued on Tuesday. "Justice Scalia reminds us that the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination based on sex and that corporations have more rights than women do," she continued.
Leaders of national gender equality groups addressed the crowd, including Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal; Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization for Women; Dr. E. Faye Williams, Chair of the National Congress of Black Women; Desiree Hoffman, Advocacy Director for the YWCA; and Jessica Neuwirth, Director of the ERA Coalition.
The representatives shared stories of constituents whose experiences reflect the need for a constitutional amendment that explicitly protects against sex-based discrimination, particularly in light of court decisions that leave victims of sexual violence with limited legal recourse.
Leah Meredith, a former GEICO employee, told the crowd about her own fight to resume consideration for a promotion after she learned she was pregnant. "I kept up my work really hard, despite a physically trying pregnancy," Meredith said. "I was very sick, and in the last trimester, I could hardly walk." Despite her commitment to maintaining her work, she heard nothing further about a promised promotion until she was going on maternity leave. "I got called in for my meeting, but instead of hearing about my promotion, I was advised I wouldn't be getting it."
As it stands, the U.S. Constitution makes no explicit reference to "women" or the rights of individuals on the basis of sex. The Equal Rights Amendment has been introduced in every Congress between 1923 until it passed in 1972. Thirty-eight states are required to ratify the ERA before it can become a constitutional amendment. Thirty-five states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment by the June 1982 deadline imposed by Congress. Congresswoman Speier has introduced a resolution in the House that would abolish that deadline, and require only three additional states to ratify the amendment before it could become part of the US Constitution. Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have introduced identical legislation in the US Senate. Earlier this year, the Virginia State Senate and the Illinois State Senate passed measures to ratify the ERA.
Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal said she's encouraged by the momentum around the ERA. "In the 2014 Virginia state legislative session, the Senate approved the ERA. In late May of 2014, the Illinois Senate approved the ERA by a 60 percent majority. The Equal Rights Amendment will come up in the veto session of the Illinois House in November, and Illinois could become the 36th state to ratify the ERA," she said. "Moreover, the Equal Rights Amendment will be on the state ballot of Oregon in November 2014. The Oregon measure will amend the state Constitution to include an Equal Rights Amendment with wording similar to the federal ERA that was approved by Congress in 1972," Smeal continued.
The University of Connecticut (UConn) will pay $1.28 million in settlement fees for a sexual assault lawsuit brought against the university by five sexual assault survivors.
The federal lawsuit was brought by five women after four of the women had filed complaints with the Department of Education (ED) alleging that UConn had mishandled rape cases and failed to take action on reports of harassment, in violation of Title IX. As part of the settlement, the women have agreed to request suspension of their ED complaints and not to make any disparaging statements against the university. UConn has not admitted any wrongdoing, and is not obligated to make any institutional policy changes as part of the settlement. The university has, however, created a new Special Victims Unit within the campus police department as well as an assistant dean of students for victim support services since the litigation was filed.
Despite the settlement, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) will continue its UConn investigation, as three other current or former students - who were not plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit - had signed onto the original ED complaint. OCR is currently investigating 66 other colleges and universities to review their handling of sexual assault cases.
This case doesn't even come close to being the first campus sexual assault case that has gotten media attention. Earlier this year, Michigan State University, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley and Penn State all went under investigation after student sexual-assault survivors filed charges.
In response to growing concerns about the handling of sexual assault on campuses, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault was formed. Its first report was filed in April of this year. The report states that one in five women is sexually assaulted during their time in college, and calls for steps to be taken to prevent sexual assault: conducting surveys to assess the problem, engaging men in the fight against sexual violence, responding effectively when a student says they were assaulted, and making enforcement efforts more transparent.
100 days ago today, more than 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram. This week, groups around the world are holding vigils to show that they have not stopped supporting rescue efforts and still want safety for these girls.
People from all over the world are joining together to voice their support for the kidnapped girls and to demand that child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, female genital mutilation (FGM), and other forms of abuse are abolished globally.
A list of vigils and Thursday's moment of silence can be found at the Bring Back Our Girls Facebook page. The moment of silence is to show support for the rescue mission for the kidnapped girls.
"You can [observe the moment of silence] at work, at home or wherever it is suitable for you at a time of your comfort," Bring Back Our Girls says on their event page. "You can do it yourself or with friends and family. Let's again show the world and the girls that we care."
At least 2 of the kidnapped girls have allegedly died, and several may be ill, the AP reports. The girls are still believed to be in the Sambisa Forest on the northeastern border of Nigeria. USAID has provided funding for counseling for the families of the abducted girls and for the girls who have managed to escape.
Eleven parents of the abducted girls have died since the kidnapping. Seven of them were killed by insurgents in attacks on a separate village. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who recently met with Chibok families, has made it clear he does not want to attack Boko Haram as a part of a rescue operation because it could be too dangerous for the kidnapped girls, and he also does not want to open up negotiations with the terrorist group.
Women's rights organizations, medical groups, and religious leaders joined several activists yesterday at a rally on the steps of the Colorado state capitol to launch a campaign against a new personhood initiative on the state's November ballot.
The No on 67 campaign opposes Amendment 67, otherwise known as the Brady Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the definition of "person" and "child" in the Colorado Criminal Code and Wrongful Death act to include "unborn human beings." A similar initiative was on the ballot in 2008 and 2010, but it was defeated both times by a wide margin.
If passed, the amendment would have extreme repercussions, banning abortion in all cases, emergency contraception and birth control, and possibly in-vitro fertilization. Under a similar measure, a woman in Wisconsin was arrested after she sought early prenatal care and told health care workers about her prior use of painkillers and her attempts to stop use on her own.
"Amendment 67 is bad medicine for women and for Colorado," said Dr. Ruben Alvero, a speaker at the rally. "It would allow the government and the courts to violate the sanctity of doctor/patient privacy, and allow government access to women's private medical records."
The amendment is yet another thinly veiled attempt at "personhood" led by Personhood USA. Supporters claim that the measure will help pregnant women get justice if crimes committed against them cause them to miscarry. However, Colorado already has a law, the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, that addresses that very issue. Instead, women's rights advocates worry the language in Amendment 67 could harm pregnant woman by opening up to criminal investigation of any woman who has an abortion or miscarries.
A similar measure will be on the ballot in North Dakota this November, as well as a measure in Tennessee to amend that state's constitution to declare that there is no right to an abortion in the state.
Saturday, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America launched an aggressive week-long siege against reproductive health clinics and abortion care providers in southern Louisiana.
The annual siege is expected to run through Saturday, July 26, but already, several dozen Operation Rescue protesters have moved these forceful assemblies to doctors' private residences, riling neighbors in the process with their megaphones, explicit and invasive signage. "It's an encroachment on my right as a neighbor. I've spoken to the police here. I feel like they have more of a right than I do as someone who lives here to spout all of this hatred whereas I'm supposed to just roll over and take it," one neighbor told WDSU-TV following raucous demonstrations at a doctor's home just outside of New Orleans. The protesters returned to the doctor's home on Sunday, distributing flyers with doctors' photographs and other identifying information. Neighbors, however, were outraged by these tactics and a group of about 20 came out, some with signs, to support the doctor.
"Hundreds of residents, students, and pro-choice volunteers from local community organizations have turned out in Louisiana to support doctors, clinics, and patients," said duVergne Gaines, Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project (NCAP). "The Feminist Majority Foundation has been on the ground training volunteers and thanks to our joint efforts, the clinics have stayed open and all patients are being seen."
The Feminist Majority Foundation, in collaboration with the New Orleans Abortion Fund and the National Abortion Federation, has been on-site coordinating volunteers. Training sessions led by the FMF National Clinic Access Project (NCAP) have drawn scores of students, clinic escorts, and legal observers who are countering the week of extreme anti-abortion protests.
A new Planned Parenthood facility in New Orleans, which is still under construction, has been targeted by the demonstrators. The local Catholic bishop has organized boycotts of contractors working on the unfinished facility.
Women in Detroit are dying from pregnancy-related complications at about three times the US average, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.
Twenty-six women died in Detroit over the period 2008-2011 as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, and Detroit has the highest rate of infant mortality among major US cities, with 13.5 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.
According to Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers (an initiative launched to reduce maternal mortality), popular opinion in the US suggests maternal and infant death happens only in developing countries, but data proves otherwise, with US national rates increasing, even as maternal mortality rates worldwide decline.
"[Americans] don't think women are dying [from pregnancy] in the US, let alone that the rate is going up," Dr. Agrawal said.
The US is one of just eight countries where the number of maternal deaths increased between 2003 and 2013, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. That study found that in 2013, for every 100,000 births in the US, about 18.5 women died, even though it is more expensive to give birth in the US than anywhere else in the world.
Experts attribute the high maternal death rate in Detroit to a mix of chronic health conditions, which African-Americans suffer more often. African-Americans are up to four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, and almost 83 percent of Detroit's population is black or African-American, according to US Census data.
Poverty also plays a critical role in the city's high maternal and infant death rates. Detroit is the poorest major city in the country, with about 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line. Poorer individuals in the US often struggle to get the access to health care they need. And black women in the US are currently twice as likely not to receive prenatal care than white women.
Detroit also has a shortage of primary care physicians, some of whom do not accept Medicaid. Still, the recent expansion of Medicaid in the state - made possible through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - will help provide necessary preventive health services that will help ensure that women can manage health conditions before and after pregnancy.
The White House clarified on Thursday that closely held for-profit corporations refusing to provide contraceptive coverage will be required to inform their employees.
The clarification is a response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. The decision allows closely held, for-profit corporations to refuse to provide health insurance coverage for contraception - a key component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - if the corporation's owners claim that providing coverage would violate a sincerely held religious belief.
"We are making clear that if a corporation like Hobby Lobby drops coverage of contraceptive services from its health plan, it must do so in the light of day by letting its workers and their families know," said a senior Obama administration official.
Just last week, a minority of Senators blocked a bill that would have reversed the Hobby Lobby decision and required all for-profit companies to provide contraceptive coverage as required by the ACA, regardless of owners' religious objections. The Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act failed to gain the 60 votes needed to move to a floor vote, although it received the support of 56 Senators, including every Democrat and three Republicans: Susan Collins (R-ME), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
In a new round-up of private sector and public sector research, Guttmacher Institute dispels the myths surrounding the cost to businesses of insurance coverage for contraception. "Providing comprehensive coverage of contraceptive methods and services is not only sound public health policy," Guttmacher states, "but also a savvy business decision."
Guttmacher counters claims that covering contraception costs corporations. The evidence strongly suggests that the cost of covering all methods of contraception is outweighed by the savings accrued from preventing unplanned pregnancies. The one-year cost of contraceptives ranges from $100 to $600, while the cost of prenatal care, delivery, and newborn care can cost $20,000 or more. Previous research by Guttmacher also found that public funding for contraceptive services in 2010 led to public savings of $10.5 billion.
Having insurance coverage for contraception also increases worker productivity and encourages better use. Women without insurance who do not like their form of contraception but are stuck with it are more likely to use it inconsistently or incorrectly. Having insurance allows them to choose the best method for them.
"Removing cost as a barrier to use can significantly improve the effectiveness of contraceptive use by allowing women to pick the method that is best suited for their particular needs and circumstances - especially when it comes to highly effective methods like the IUD and implant that have high upfront costs," Guttmacher states.
Currently, 30 million women have access to birth control without co-pays or deductibles because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, the Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell that "closely-held" corporations could not be required to provide health insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the corporation's sincerely held religious beliefs. A bill to reverse this decision failed in the Senate Wednesday.
An Alaska state court judge this week temporarily blocked a law that created a narrow definition for when abortions were "medically necessary" and therefore covered under Alaska Medicaid.
The law, SB 49, gives doctors a strict list of 21 reasons someone on Medicaid would qualify for a "medically necessary abortion," pulling language from a 2001 decision by the state's Supreme Court which declared that Alaska was required to cover abortion care for women in the Medicaid program when their physicians found them "medically necessary." The law has been criticized for discriminating against low-income women by preventing them from accessing proper abortion care with Medicaid funds.
The politicians who passed this law were playing a dangerous game of keep away with women's health by trying to withhold Medicaid coverage from qualified women, said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A woman shouldn't have to choose between paying her heating bill and protecting her health. But that will be the reality if this law stands, with the end result that a woman in the state of Alaska will have worse health care simply because she's poor."
This case marks the second time Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest has challenged the law as unconstitutional. They are represented in the current case by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, the ACLU of Alaska, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Susan Orlansky of Anchorage. Both times, their lawsuits have caused a temporary block on the law as the challenge continued through legal proceedings.
This decision ensures that Alaskan women facing difficult economic circumstances will not have crucial insurance coverage taken away if they need to end a pregnancy, Janet Crepps, senior counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement. The Alaska state constitution protects women against discrimination in the provision of insurance coverage for the full range of reproductive health care, and we will continue to defend this right against those who seek to take it away.
A federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional, finding that the sentence "serves no penological purpose."
US District Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a strong condemnation of the state's capital punishment system in a 29-page ruling filed Wednesday. Judge Carney criticized the state of limbo the California system creates for those receiving the death penalty, calling it an "arbitrary" and "unpredictable" sentence.
Ernest Dewayne Jones, the plaintiff in the case, was first put on death row 19 years ago. In April 1995, Jones was charged with the rape and stabbing murder of his girlfriend's mother. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Jones trial played out a few doors away from the much-publicized O.J. Simpson trial without drawing comparable fanfare or legal resources, opening up the question of whether poorer defendants are disadvantaged in the system. Judge Carney's decision vacates Jones' death sentence.
California has the nation's largest death row population, but has not executed anyone since 2006, when a federal court found problems with the lethal injection procedure. California voters, however, approved the death penalty in 1972, 1978, and narrowly again in 2012, with 48 percent of Californians voting to replace it with life in prison without parole.
Wednesday's decision is not expected to lead to any immediate changes. A spokesperson for Attorney General Kamala Harris said the office is reviewing the ruling.
7/16/2014 - New Federal Guidelines On Pregnancy Discrimination Align with Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its pregnancy discrimination guidelines this week for the first time in over 30 years. The new language reiterates the policies outlined in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and classifies discrimination against pregnant employees as a form of sex discrimination.
The guidelines were approved 3-2 Monday. The guidelines make it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker based on pregnancy, childbirth or any related medical condition. They also disallow discrimination against someone based on whether or not they have been pregnant in the past, or want to get pregnant in the future.
"Pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are qualified to perform, and it cannot be a basis for denying employment or treating women less favorably than co-workers similar in their ability or inability to work," EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a press release this week. "Despite much progress, we continue to see a significant number of charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and our investigations have revealed the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices."
In a Q-and-A section on the EEOC's site about pregnancy discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is explained as banning employers from firing, refusing to hire or demoting a woman if pregnancy, childbirth or any related condition was the reason for the action. The EEOC guidelines were released in part for those who may not have been aware of the cited federal laws, in order to make the requirements better understood and known.
"I think it will make a really big difference," Joan C. Williams, a law professor whose work is cited in the EEOC's new guidelines, told the Associated Press. "This is also the direction the courts have begun to go in, and that's why the EEOC said, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"
Pregnancy discrimination complaints in the US increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011. Many women nationwide, especially those in low-income jobs, are forced to take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether during their pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, including 90 percent of those mothers who work into their last two months of pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a piece of national legislation currently stalled in Congress, would update and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women are not denied necessary accommodations at work.
Affirmative action survived a federal appellate court in Texas on Tuesday. In a 2-1 split, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the University of Texas at Austin can consider race in the admissions process.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote, "We find force in the argument that race here is a necessary part, albeit one of many parts" of UT Austin's admissions plan.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP-LDF) applauded the outcome of the case. The NAACP-LDF represented the Black Student Alliance at UT Austin and Black Ex-Students of Texas in the Fisher litigation. "This decision should stand as a declaration of the ongoing importance and legality of affirmative action efforts that holistically evaluate applicants for admission in higher education," Ifill said.
The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Fisher, first filed suit against the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Fisher, a white student, alleged that she was the victim of racial discrimination. Fisher argued that the use of affirmative action created an unfair disadvantage, and ultimately led to her being denied admission to the university.
The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 2012. Last June, the Court issued a brief 13-page decision calling on the lower courts to apply a "strict scrutiny" test when considering the merit of Fisher's argument, meaning courts would need to determine on their own if the use of race was absolutely necessary, and that no other alternative could be explored to create a diverse student body. Though supported by a broad majority, the potential for a total overhaul of affirmative action was not out of reach. In separate opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote that they would have supported elimination of affirmative action had they been asked to do so.
Judge Emilio Garza, the single dissenting judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, argued that the UT Austin failed to provide "sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity."
Lawyers for the plaintiff plan to appeal. If an appeal goes forward, the case could return to the Supreme Court.
A new study shows that the wage gap between tipped and non-tipped workers is the widest it's ever been in American history.
1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) created protections to hotel, restaurant and other service employees, but also created a sub-wage for tipped workers with the expectation that an employee's tips, when added to the sub-wage, would match or exceed the minimum wage. In effect, the tipped wage created a subsidy for service employers, exempting organizations that used tipped labor from paying full wages.
According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), tipped laborers face much more stringent economic outcomes than their full-wage peers. According to the study, the poverty rate among non-tipped workers is 6.5 percent - but among tipped workers, it rests at at 12.8 percent. More than half of the people represented by this overwhelmingly female demographic are more likely to rely on public assistance as a permanent wage subsidy. The authors of the EPI study note that public assistance was never meant to become "part of the business strategy for low-wage employers." They also found that the tipped laborer workforce is currently the largest it has ever been.
In their own research focused on tipped workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) found that one in three tipped workers are parents, and of that number one in six rely on free and reduced lunch programs to feed their children. Poverty rates dramatically rise to 25% among tipped workers who are people of color. However, overall poverty decreases in states with higher minimum wage rates.
The Department of Labor recognizes tipped employees as those who "customarily and regularly" receive $30 or more per month in tips. According to the PolicyMatters Journal, that breaks down to $1.50 a day in tips each month. Employers are required to pay tipped workers $2.13 per hour. An employer can claim a "tip credit" up to $5.12, the difference between the direct wage they're required to pay and the $7.25 federal minimum wage. According to the Department of Labor, an employer should make up the difference if a worker's tips do not cover the difference.
The $2.13 tipped minimum wage has not changed since 1991, when it made up half of the overall minimum wage floor of $4.25. Today, the tipped minimum wage makes up just 29 percent of the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25. The Economic Policy Institute found that the real, inflation-adjusted value of the tipped wage and the federal minimum wage are both lower today than they were in 1966.
Some states and local jurisdictions are moving to raise their own minimum wage. A few states, like Minnesota, Delaware, and West Virginia, are also working to include tipped wage workers in those increases. However, organizations like the National Restaurant Association, the most prominent restaurant industry lobby, have succeeded in defeating many local and federal efforts to raise the tipped minimum wage.
7/14/2014 - Massachusetts Lawmakers Work to Restore Protections for Abortion Clinics Following McCullen
The state of Massachusetts is expected to soon push legislation providing greater protections to reproductive health clinics following the Supreme Court's ruling in McCullen v. Coakley.
According to the Associated Press, the Massachusetts state legislature expects to file a bill this week that would provide greater protections for abortion clinics despite the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the state's law that created a 35-foot-buffer zone around reproductive health clinics last month. The buffer zone law, created after the 1994 murders of two individuals at separate clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts by anti-choice extremist John Salvi, was meant to reduce the harassment, intimidation, and violence which had previously taken place outside of the state's abortion clinics and curb anti-choice extremists' access to women seeking reproductive health care.
In the days following the Supreme Court's decision, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley tweeted, "#SCOTUS may not like our buffer zone but our commitment to protect women's healthcare access remains." Now, Coakley, Governor Deval Patrick, other lawmakers, and local women's rights groups have all signaled their support for a bill that would respect the free speech rights of protesters while at the same time strengthening existing laws that provide for the safety of clinic workers and patients as they enter reproductive health care facilities.
Speaking to hundreds of people gathered at the Supreme Rally in Boston last week, Gov. Patrick petitioned supporters to get involved in the push to draft new legislation. "Come make a claim on your government and tell your stories," he said, "above all, because we have to build the record that will sustain the legislation I believe we can move and get enacted before the session ends at the end of this month."
Anti-abortion groups have threatened more legal action if the state moves forward with a new law. Attorney General Coakley envisions greater police power to break up crowds, although few details of the proposed bill have been disclosed.
7/11/2014 - Revenge Rape in India Leads to Three Arrests
A man in eastern India was arrested for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl this week in "retaliation" for the girl's brother having allegedly sexually assaulted a woman.
Three people were arrested in connection with the event: the alleged rapist, the brother of the girl (charged with molestation), and a member of the village council accused of ordering the crime. After the alleged attack, the girl was taken to the hospital and gave a statement to the police.
The AP reports that village councils, mostly in rural India, are empowered to resolve disputes and issue decrees on a broad range of topics, often using their power to enforce gender norms.
This is not the first rape case in India that has received international attention this year. In May, two girls who were allegedly gang-raped were found hanging in a tree in Northern India, and earlier this year a woman was gang-raped in West Bengal, apparently based on orders from village elders who did not approve of the woman's relationship with a man.
After the 2012 gang rape and murder of a girl in Delhi, pressure has been increasingly put on the country's government to take rape more seriously. The Indian government strengthened anti-sexual violence laws in the wake of widespread protest, but more work must be done to ensure safety.
A Tennessee woman was arrested Tuesday under a new state law that criminalizes drug dependent mothers.
The Tennessee measure, signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam in April, prohibits "the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if [the] child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug."
The new mother was arrested and charged with simple assault just two days after giving birth. The infant tested positive for amphetamine, which is not a narcotic according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. There have also been no reports that the newborn was addicted to the drug or harmed by exposure.
Advocates have criticized the Tennessee law, noting that the fear of criminal penalties will discourage pregnant women struggling with drug dependency from seeking care. Medical associations like the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have spoken out against these types of measures because they push women out of the health care system for fear of prosecution.
Tennessee is the first state to pass a pregnancy-outcome law through the legislature. According to the Guttmacher Institute [PDF], 18 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child welfare laws, and 3 consider it grounds for civil commitment. 15 states require health care professional to report suspected drug abuse by pregnant women, and 4 require subsequent drug testing. However, only 18 states have drug treatment program that target women, only 10 provide pregnant women with priority access to state-funded programs, and only 4 prohibit discrimination against pregnant women in those programs.
A new law just took effect in Georgia that bans coverage of abortion in health plans purchased in the state health insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These health insurance policies can now only cover abortion "in the case of medical emergency,"but not in cases of incest or rape.
The law, called the "Federal Abortion Mandate Opt-Out Act," was signed by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in April. Two state senate democrats and all state senate republicans voted in favor of the bill. At least 672,000 state health insurance plan members and dependents have insurance that is now affected by this newly active law.
"I'm furious. And I think every woman and enlightened gentleman in Georgia should be infuriated," State Representative Pat Gardner saidwhen the restrictions were passed. "This is a decision for a family and their doctor, not for a governor to make.
Georgia is now the 25th state to ban abortion coverage in private insurance plans bought through state health insurance marketplaces. The state had already had in place an administrative ban on abortion coverage for state employees. The new law makes that ban permanent and extends it to anyone who purchases private insurance through the marketplace.
In light of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, several LGBT rights groups have withdrawn their support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) citing increased concerns about the religious exemption included in the bill.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund on Tuesday was the first LGBT rights organization to withdraw its support ENDA on the grounds that the religious exemption, like the ACA exemption and accommodation for contraceptive coverage, might "be used as a similar license to discriminate across the country."The American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center subsequently withdrew their support. In a joint statement, the groups noted, "The Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby has made it all the more important that we not accept this inappropriate provision."
ENDA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill, however, contains an exemption for religious organizations. According to the joint statement, "ENDA's discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, nursing homes and universities a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people."
The Senate voted 64-32 to pass ENDA in November. It is unlikely to be taken up in the House. President Obama has announced that he will sign an Executive Order prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for federal contractors, but some religious groups have insisted that the President add a "robust religious exemption for groups with religious objections to homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are expected to introduce the Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act today to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision and ensure that for-profit corporations could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) contraceptive coverage benefit. The bill would maintain the religious exemption and accommodation. Several religiously affiliated non-profits have challenged the ACA, despite the accommodation, as a violation of their religious freedom.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), joined by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and advocates from numerous organizations including the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), called attention yesterday to the myriad human rights and labor issues that are being sidestepped as closed door meetings on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) go forward in Ottawa, Canada.
The TPP is a proposed regional free trade agreement that addresses a broad range of issues, including trade in goods and services; regulation of intellectual property, Internet access, and foreign investments; as well as labor and environmental regulations. The United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam are all negotiating parties in the TPP, making it the world's largest free-trade zone in history if a final deal is reached.
Standing in the rain, Rep. DeLauro cited the numerous health and environmental concerns, as well as egregious human rights and labor rights abuses that members of Congress want to see addressed before moving any further with negotiations.
"It is no wonder that nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose granting 'fast-track,' and 178 House members from both parties have publicly declared their opposition to it," Rep. DeLauro said, referring to legislation that would force Congress to vote, up-or-down without the ability of offering any amendments, on whether to approve the trade deal. "TPP is a non-starter. There is no appetite for the deal, neither in the Congress or in the country as a whole."
Rep. Marc Pocan (D-WI) called out the Sultan of Brunei's new penal code, and that negotiating partner's decision to stone gays, lesbians, and people convicted of adultery, to publicly flog women who have had abortions, and issue prison sentences for women wearing "indecent" clothing. "We should not be providing special trade privileges to countries that continue to violate human rights and restrict equality," Rep. Pocan said. "The United States has had a long tradition of using our influence as a world leader to try to improve human rights across the globe, and we're doing the exact opposite in the Trans-Pacific Partnership."
Last month, 12 women's rights groups, led by the Feminist Majority, issued a letter to President Obama calling for the White House to suspend TPP talks if Brunei was not removed from the negotiating table, or until the sultan revoked the new laws. Feminist Majority Policy Director Gaylynn Burroughs reiterated those terms yesterday.
"Human rights and women's rights can never take a backseat to profit and trade," Burroughs said. "The United States should not condone these laws by conducting business as usual with Brunei. We have to seek to use all available and appropriate policy tools to pressure the sultan to change his new penal code."
In recent weeks, President Obama said he wanted to see a deal completed on the agreement by November. Talks over the terms of the agreement have been underway since 2010, but as in the past, critics say this week's TPP meetings in Ottawa include limited, if any, participation by public stakeholders or elected officials. Members of Congress have called for increased transparency, especially important as some groups charge that multinational corporate interests are thoroughly represented in the negotiations through "trade advisers."
One in four Americans lived in a high-poverty area in 2012, according to Changes in Areas with Concentrated Poverty: 2000 to 2010, a recently released report that analyzes data from the United States Census Bureau and the American Community Survey.
The 77 million Americans who live in poverty areas - defined as an area where over one-fifth of the residents earn incomes below the current poverty line of $23,600 for a family of four - is a significant increase from the 18 percent recorded by the Census Bureau in 2000. Southern states, which have been found to have a higher percentage of low-income public school students than others, have especially seen their numbers grow. In 2012, 57.3 percent of people living in the south lived in poverty areas, up from 46.7 percent in 2000.
The increase has affected Americans across the board, but the report found that Africans Americans are the most likely to live in poverty areas, at 50.4 percent, followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives. About 20.3 percent of white Americans live in poverty areas.
The growth of poverty areas can largely be attributed to exclusionary zoning and the migration of affluent people into suburban areas, according to Paul Jargowsky, a professor of urban research and education at Rutgers University and an analyst of the report. Exclusionary zoning occurs when suburban districts set requirements for joining a neighborhood, such as large minimum house sizes, that are impossible to meet for lower-income families. These policies contribute to highly segregated neighborhoods.
"You have many, many politically independent suburbs that use exclusionary zoning to create housing only for families with higher incomes," said Jargowsky. "As families with wealth move further and further out of urban areas you develop these very high-poverty neighborhoods where the schools begin to fail, you have high crime and low wages."
On top of higher crime, lower wages, and schools lacking in resources, low-income families living in concentrated poverty areas often face a lack of job opportunities and lack of access to good housing conditions and health services. The report acknowledges that some government programs focus on these neighborhoods to alleviate poverty and other issues that face their residents. However, more needs to be done.