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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.

2/4/2014 - Local Pregnancy Discrimination Laws Go Into Effect While PWFA Remains Stalled in Congress

In New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia, legislation protecting pregnant workers has now now been enacted. Across the nation, however, pregnant workers remain vulnerable to discrimination.

An amendment including pregnant workers in the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, the New York City Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination all protect pregnant workers from discrimination and require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. These accommodations include allowing employees to sit on a stool rather than stand during work hours, giving them permission to carry water bottles and food on the job, re-assigning pregnant employees temporarily to light-duty work, and refraining from allowing pregnant workers to do heavy lifting.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, currently stalled in both chambers of Congress, would require every employer in the nation to provide these accommodations to their employees.

Despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978's bar on discrimination toward pregnant employees, many American women are forced out of their jobs or denied accommodations that would allow them to continue working once they become pregnant. The New York Times highlighted the story of Floralba Fernandez Espinal this weekend, an immigrant woman from the Bronx who lost her job at Unique Thrift when she gave her employer a letter from her obstetrician that barred her from lifting, pushing, or carrying heavy loads or objects. Fernandez, who worked regularly carrying materials to to the showroom from the storeroom, had seen other workers transferred to different positions in times of need - but she had no such luck. Her manager placed her on unpaid leave and replaced her with a new employee once she left.

Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, and 90 percent of those women continue to work into their last two months of pregnancy, reports ThinkProgress. Low-income women and women of color are more likely to be affected by discrimination against pregnant workers, because they are more likely to hold low-paying jobs with limited flexibility. When pregnant workers are forced out of their jobs, they are placed in positions of emotional and financial hardship, and discrimination against women with children often makes their re-entry into the workforce more difficult.

"The tremendous bi-partisan support for [the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination] bill in the New Jersey legislature shows that this is an issue on which people of all political persuasions can agree," said NWLC Vice-President and General Counsel Emily Martin. "We now urge Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would create a level playing field for pregnant workers across the nation."

2/4/2014 - Louisiana Scraps Abortion Restrictions After Pro-Choice Protests

Pro-choice activists in Louisiana are celebrating today after health officials announced Monday night they are "rescinding" restrictive abortion provisions that would have closed all five of the state's clinics.

The regulations, passed in November 2013 without any input from pro-choice organizers, would have mandated extensive expansions and renovations to existing clinics. Officials from all five of Louisiana's clinics said they would have been unable to meet the requirements and would have closed down. The Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) announced its decision just hours before it was set to hear testimony on the regulations.

"The Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) is rescinding its November 2013 emergency rule for outpatient abortion facilities licensing standards," said DHH spokesperson Olivia Watkins in a statement. "The Department will reissue a revised rule and notice of intent at a later date."

The original legislation also would have required a 30-day waiting period for all patients between blood tests and legal abortion procedures. However, in January, the DHH rescinded the blood test portion.

Pro-choice activists who traveled to Baton Rouge for the hearing are hosting a celebratory rally this afternoon.

2/4/2014 - Presidential Candidates Begin Campaigns for Afghanistan's April Election

Candidates for Afghanistan's upcoming April election kicked off their presidential campaigns on Sunday.

According to TOLO News, many of the 11 candidates have focused on similar, broad issues so far, including security, human rights, women's participation in government, corruption, and economic development. Activists and members of Afghanistan's parliament pointed out the lack of specific goals in the platforms, but they hope candidates will reveal more detailed plans as they campaign for the next two months.

The April 5 election is the first independent election organized by Afghanistan. "This is a very important election, very crucial election because this is the first time from an elected president we are going to go to another elected president," Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, chief electoral officer for the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC), told The Associated Press. "We are fully ready - logistically, operationally as well as from the capacity side, the budget side, the timing side."

The IEC has been overseeing election activities to ensure they are conducted in compliance with the laws and with voter confidentiality protected. It has also been working to advance Afghan women's participation in the electoral process through the establishment of a Gender Unit in 2009, targeted public education directed at women voters, the use of female polling staff and observers, and the development of appropriate security measures.

2/3/2014 - US Abortion Rate Decreases to Lowest Level Since 1973

A Guttmacher Institute study released last week reveals that the abortion rate in the United States is at its lowest rate since 1973, when the Supreme Court recognized a woman's right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade.

"Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011" by Rachel Jones and Jenna Jerman, asserts that there were only 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 2011, and a 13 percent decrease in the rate of abortions in the United States between 2008 and 2011. The highest abortion rate occurred in 1981, at 29.3 per 1,000 women.

Although the authors did not examine causes of the recent decline in abortion, they detailed some possible links. "The decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates," said lead author Rachel Jones. "Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD. Moreover, the recent recession led many women and couples to want to avoid or delay pregnancy and childbearing."

The authors ruled out a negative effect by the high number of abortion restrictions making their way through state legislatures, because many of the restrictions were not introduced or implemented until their study ended in 2011, and the decline occurred in all but six states.

The study also found that the proportion of early medication abortions - often safer and cheaper than later term abortions - increased during this time period. "Clearly, the availability of medication abortion does not lead women to have more abortions," Jones said. "However, it has likely helped women obtain abortion care earlier in pregnancy, as evidenced by a shift toward very early abortions."

Data for the study was collected through questionnaires mailed to known abortion providers. This is the Guttmacher Institute's 16th census of abortion providers in the US.

2/3/2014 - Minnesota Lawmakers Introduce Women's Economic Security Act

Last week, Minnesota lawmakers introduced an expansive legislative package -- dubbed the Women's Economic Security Act of 2014" -- to address a wide range of issues affecting women working outside of the home, including mandated paid sick leave, increased minimum wage and expanded access to childcare.

If the legislation passes, private companies hired by Minnesota would be required to report on pay equity within their workforce. The law would also expand unpaid family leave and paid sick leave while establishing protections for pregnant workers in need of reasonable workplace accommodations. Existing protections for domestic violence survivors would be strengthened, incentives to help women entrepreneurs would be created, and a state retirement plan established, among other initiatives.

"The Women's Economic Security Act aims to break down barriers to economic progress so that women - and all Minnesotans - have a fair opportunity to succeed," said Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen (D).

Other states, including Nebraska and New York, have introduced expansive legislative packages to combat these problems. And In July, Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) similarly unveiled their When Women Succeed, America Succeeds agenda, which addresses universal childcare, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and the Paycheck Fairness Act.

1/31/2014 - Senate Democratic Women Speak Out In Support of Raising the Minimum Wage

In a press conference yesterday, 12 Democrat women senators came together to urge Republican lawmakers to join them in efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, now at $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour. Their comments echoed President Obama's State of the Union remarks about income inequality, in which he committed to issuing an Executive Order raising the minimum wage for new federal contractors to $10.10.

Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) related Obama's remarks to two pieces of legislation currently in the Senate: the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which raises the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 in three phases, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which seeks to close the wage gap by expanding the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

"The women of the Senate are coming together to say - it is time to raise the minimum wage in this country," said Senator Boxer.

Senator Klobuchar touched on America's consumer-based economy, making a case for a higher minimum wage that allows American families to stimulate the economy through consumerism. The 12 senators also each asserted that the minimum wage is indeed a women's issue, and that a raise on the federal level would lift 15 million women out of poverty. 64 percent of all minimum wage workers are women, and one-third of all American women - 42 million - and the 28 million children who depend on them, are living on the brink of poverty.

"Republicans have to decide whether they are really going to block giving 15 million American women a raise," said Senator Murray. "My hope is that over the next month our Republican colleagues do a little soul searching as they prepare for this vote. I also hope they talk to the millions of American women who are struggling to get by on $7.25 an hour, particularly at a time when many of these women are the sole caregivers and breadwinners in their families."

The Minimum Wage Fairness Act, introduced in the Senate by Tom Harkin (D-IA) in November 2013, has not yet been up for a vote in the full chamber. Many of the women urged Congress to take up the stalled legislation and stand by America's women and families.

"Full time work should not be rewarded with full time poverty," Senator Warren said. "Hardworking men and women who are busting their tails in full-time jobs should have a chance to support themselves and their families and build a little economic security. It is time for Congress to act and raise the minimum wage."

1/31/2014 - Sandra Fluke Strongly Considering Bid for House Seat

Sandra Fluke, the well-known women's rights activist and attorney, is "strongly considering" running for Representative Henry Waxman's congressional seat, she told a California radio station yesterday.

Waxman, who has spent 40 years in the House of Representatives, announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of the Congressional session. According to Fluke, who became a household name in 2012 when she was a Georgetown Law student and denied the chance to testify at a Republican hearing on the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage requirement, several key Democratic leaders urged her to run.

"I'm flattered that I'm being discussed as a potential candidate," she told the station. "A number of folks I respect very deeply have reached out today and encouraged me to run. I am strongly considering running."

Since 2012, when radio jockey Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" and "prostitute" for needing birth control, Fluke became an out-spoken feminist leader. She spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and at Feminist Majority's 2012 Women Money Power Summit in Washington, DC.

1/30/2014 - House and Senate Democrats File Amicus Briefs in Support of Affordable Care Act Contraception Benefit

91 House Democrats, 19 Senate Democrats, and the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) filed separate amicus briefs Tuesday in support of the contraceptive coverage benefit in the Affordable Care Act. NWLC's brief was joined by 68 other organizations, including the Feminist Majority Foundation.

The briefs are for the Supreme Court case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, and the House's brief includes Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v Sebelius. Craft store Hobby Lobby filed a federal lawsuit in November 2012 against the Obama Administration over the mandate requiring employers to provide coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives, including the pill and IUDs, without co-pays or deductibles. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, a wood cabinet manufacturer, are arguing that this benefit violates the religious beliefs of these corporations and that they should not be required to provide health insurance plans that cover certain types of birth control.The Supreme Court agreed to hear the challenge to the ACA last November, and it is currently pending.

The briefs emphasize the mandate's benefits to millions of Americans who will now be able to access crucial preventive health care, and they attempt to demonstrate that the requirement does not violate the free exercise of religion. "To them, it's a debate about 'freedom,' except of course the freedom for women to access care," said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA).

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

1/30/2014 - New York State Assembly Passes Omnibus Women's Equality Act

The New York State Assembly passed the Women's Equality Act on Monday, an omnibus bill designed to strengthen women's rights in 10 different areas.

The Women's Equality Act codifies Roe v. Wade, ensuring that a woman can get an abortion within 24 weeks of pregnancy, and protects providers from prosecution. It also closes loopholes in equal pay laws, extends protections against sexual harassment to all workplaces, allows the recovery of attorney fees in harassment cases, ends employment discrimination based on whether a woman has children or is pregnant, stops housing discrimination toward victims of domestic violence, and strengthens order of protection laws and human trafficking laws in the state.

Anti-choice opposition to the bill ultimately caused it to fail in the Senate last year, where lawmakers divided the legislation into nine separate bills and dropped the abortion provisions. This year, Assembly Republicans have introduced nine separate bills mirroring the Democrats' that cover a different area of the act, once more ignoring the abortion provisions. Over 850 organizations and businesses have come together as the NY Women's Equality Coalition to counter this opposition and support passing the law in full. In June 2013, a poll found that two-thirds of voters support the Women's Equality Act, including the abortion provision.

"All of these issues are related," NOW NYC President Sonia Ossorio told RH Reality Check. "A woman's reproductive rights are just as related to how she can care for her family as discrimination in the workplace. Connecting the dots on women's equality is important." She was echoed by M. Tracey Brooks, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates. "Family planning makes sense," Brooks told Legislative Gazette. "We're going to fight for all provisions in the Women's Equality Agenda, especially the abortion provision."

1/30/2014 - Maryland Considers College Sexual Assault Reporting Bill

A Maryland House of Delegates committee heard testimony yesterday on a bill that would require all state universities and colleges to administer an anonymous sexual violence survey every three years to more accurately determine how many assaults are occurring on campuses and then report those findings to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

The legislation, sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin (D), would give both university and state officials a clearer picture of whether sexual assault prevention efforts are working, advocates said yesterday. Three campus rape survivors, including Feminist Majority Foundation Online Communications Associate Lauren Redding, testified to the committee, arguing that universities need to more aggressively tackle sexual assault prevention and reporting.

"Statistics show us that eight out of 10 of survivors don't report their assaults to the university or police," said Redding, a University of Maryland alumna. "So we really don't have an accurate picture of how many rapes are happening and whether or not universities are allocating resources appropriately to truly eradicate this problem. Survivors typically want to tell people what happened, but don't out of fear of being blamed. This anonymous survey would give them a safe outlet to do so. "

Opponents of the legislation -- including officials from Towson University, Frostburg State University and the University System of Maryland -- said the survey would be a waste of resources and is unnecessary, because universities already have reporting practices in place. However, administrators were unable to tell the committee how much total funding is spent on prevention programs and exactly how many assaults were reported last year.

Victims Rights Law Center Fellow Nancy Cantalupo, who first approached Del. Cardin about the survey idea, also testified in favor of the legislation. According to Cantalupo, a similar survey at the University of New Hampshire that students weren't mandated to fill out still had a 40 percent response rate.

1/29/2014 - Feminist Majority Applauds President Obama's Year of Action

The Feminist Majority today applauds President Obama for leading the charge on creating greater economic opportunity and security for women and families nationwide in his annual State of the Union Address.

During last night's speech, President Obama maintained his clear intention to move forward - with or without the cooperation of Congress - on issues of paramount importance to women: increasing the minimum wage, curbing the rising costs of college tuition, ensuring equal pay for equal work and allowing paid family leave.

"The message is clear - Congress will no longer be able to derail economic progress," said Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal. "That's good news for women who make up around 60 percent of minimum wage workers. It's good news for the 40 percent of households with children that rely on women to be the sole or primary source of family income, and good news for those women who make up the majority of college students around the nation."

During this "year of action," while continuing to push for legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage for all workers, the President asserted that he would issue an Executive Order to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 for those working on new federal contracts for services.

"Women and families across the nation deserve meaningful compensation for a day's work," Smeal said. "Raising the minimum wage for employees working on new federal contracts is an important step in creating opportunities for financial security for those who need it most."

President Obama touched on a wide range of other feminist issues, including immigration reform, environmental protection, continued health care expansion, gun violence, voting rights and the importance of the Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement. Read the full text of the President's speech here.

1/29/2014 - Feminist Majority Denounces the Passage of H.R. 7 in the House

The Feminist Majority decries the passage of a dangerous and extreme abortion coverage ban by the U.S. House of Representatives - the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," H.R. 7. Republicans passed H.R. 7 by a vote of 227-188 with 221 Republicans voting for the anti-abortion bill and 187 Democrats voting against.

Although H.R. 7 purports to prevent taxpayer funding for abortion, the bill actually prevents women from using their own money to purchase health insurance that includes abortion care.

"H.R. 7 is a blatant attack on women's reproductive rights and an attempt to take away a woman's ability to make personal health care decisions, including decisions about abortion," said Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal. "This bill flatly puts women's health at risk by dramatically restricting access to abortion coverage."

H.R. 7 would eliminate tax credits available under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for women and families who purchase insurance plans that include abortion coverage through the newly created health insurance marketplaces. It would also force private multi-state insurance plans that participate in the marketplaces to stop providing abortion coverage and withhold the Small Business Tax Credit to those businesses that offer comprehensive health insurance - which includes abortion - to their employees.

"The Affordable Care Act banned health insurance companies from discriminating against women and increased the ability of all Americans to access quality healthcare by extending financial assistance to low- and moderate-income families and individuals," said Smeal. "But H.R. 7 especially and unfairly targets millions of women by placing comprehensive healthcare out of reach. This attack on women's health care must end."

In particular for women living in the District of Columbia, H.R. 7 is an extreme piece of legislation. The bill would prevent the District from using its own, locally-raised funds on abortion care for women struggling to make ends meet. These women should not be held hostage to Congress's radical anti-choice agenda.

"Instead of focusing on securing women's economic security and extending unemployment benefits to the millions of long-term jobless in this country, House Republicans have decided to re-launch an assault on women's health and rights, and in the process, threaten the economic well-being of women and their families," said Smeal.

1/29/2014 - Penn State Under Investigation for Handling of Sexual Assault and Harassment on Campus

The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has launched an independent civil rights enforcement investigation of Pennsylvania State University following a review of their sexual harassment policy and a record number of forcible sex offense reports for the university in 2012.

Penn State University listed 56 forcible sex offenses on its main campus in 2012, which is 2 times more than they reported in 2011 and 14 times more than the number reported in 2010. Thirty-six of 63 total reported sex offenses had occurred from the 1970s through 2011, prompting an investigation to determine whether complaints were improperly handled in prior years to keep numbers artificially low.

The department informed Penn State of the investigation in a letter Thursday and made a public statement Sunday about their concerns. Their letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson indicated that they had not yet reached a conclusion as to whether or not the university had violated federal law.

"Our initial review of Penn State's sexual harassment policy, compounded by a dramatic increase in the number of forcible sex offenses occurring on camp[us as reported by the university itself, raised legal concerns that compelled us to investigate," Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

The university's spike in reported offenses echoes a national trend in which colleges and universities reported over 4,800 forcible sex offenses in 2012 - a 50 percent increase from the number of reports in 2009. It is unclear whether these increases indicate purposeful mishandling of sexual assault on campuses or a growing awareness by college administrators of the Clery Act and Title IX policies which compel them to act. In 2013, the OCR launched investigations into various university policies, including those at the University of Connecticut, Yale, the University of South Carolina, and the University of North Carolina, after students and faculty came forward to report mishandling of sexual assault and harassment on those campuses. The White House also recently launched a task force to prevent sexual assault on campus, with President Obama declaring that "no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women."

1/28/2014 - Democrat Wins Virginia Senate Seat After Close Recount

Virginia Del. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (D-Accomack) won a closely-watched state Senate race Monday, delivering a boost to recently inaugurated Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Lewis was initially declared the winner on January 7, but his opponent Republican businessman Wayne Coleman demanded a recount. With all ballots counted Monday, Lewis beat Coleman by 11 votes to occupy the state Senate seat vacated by Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D). With this win, Democrats are now poised to move many of Gov. McAuliffe's agenda items in the state Senate, including expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, granting new rights to same-sex couples and increasing public school funding.

The state Senate race became even more contentious last week when pro-choice Democrat Jennifer Wexton beat out two Republicans to win a special election seat that was previously held by Attorney General Mark Herring (D). Although the Virginia state Senate is now split evenly, Democrats are expected to control the chamber since Lt. Gov. Northam, who presides over the state Senate, has the ability to break most tie votes. The Virginia House of Delegates remains controlled by Republicans.

1/28/2014 - REPORT: While Marriage Equality Expands Nationwide, Other LGBT Needs Remain Unmet

A new report by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) found that in 2012 and 2013, marriage equality expanded at a quick pace while other LGBT needs - including anti-discrimination protections for workers, safe schools for LGBT youth, and simplifying changes to identity documents - remained largely unmet.

The biennial Momentum Report has, since 2007, followed and charted the progress of the LGBT movement in achieving legal, social, and political equality. The report this year analyzes local and state laws, federal action, and visibility around marriage equality and relationship recognition, employment nondiscrimination, parental recognition and adoption laws, safe schools and anti-bullying laws, hate crimes, health, identity documents, and cultural and public visibility.

The report found that marriage equality has gained significant traction, but that equality in other areas has lagged. If you look at the 17 states that extend the freedom to marry, marriage was the culmination of a years-long journey that first included passing employment nondiscrimination protections, hate crime laws, safe schools legislation, and more, said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of MAP. Yet over half of states either haven't begun or are just in the beginning phases of this journey. They often lack even the most basic statewide legal protections, meaning gay workers can be fired just because of who they are, transgender youth can face unchecked bullying in schools, and LGBT parents can remain legal strangers to their children. These low-equality states are home to half of the nation's LGBT population, including many who experience extreme discrimination and high rates of poverty, but who are often bound to stay by their jobs and love for their communities and families.

On the federal level, several pieces of legislation which could contribute to a higher level of equality for LGBT people remain stalled in Congress - including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Every Child Deserves A Family Act, and comprehensive immigration reform.

"Unprecedented progress on marriage has led to a widespread impression that nationwide equality for LGBT people is imminent," the report states. "A closer look at the full range of LGBT rights at all levels of American society, however, reveals a different picture. While the past two years have shown incredible gains toward securing the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, the LGBT movement still has a long way to go to achieve full equality and broad acceptance for LGBT people across the nation."

You can view interactive maps of various LGBT rights state-by-state on the MAP website.

1/28/2014 - Missouri Legislators Introduce Slew of Bills Restricting Abortion

Anti-choice Missouri legislators have wasted no time in the new year introducing extreme bills that restrict access to abortion. State legislators have already introduced 15 bills that create unnecessary burdens for women seeking a safe and legal abortion.

"In a state that only has one remaining abortion provider, anti-women's health politicians in Missouri are doing whatever they can to limit a woman's right to make her own personal medical decisions," Planned Parenthood wrote in a statement about the bills.

In early January, legislators introduced a bill that would increase Missouri's current 24-hour waiting period to 72 hours. Waiting periods do not promote health or safety. They simply increase economic hardships for women who may not be able to make multiple trips to a clinic or pay for transportation and a hotel while they wait to have the procedure. "This harmful bill would triple the current waiting period for women accessing safe, legal medical care in Missouri," Ryann Summerford, the statewide manager of government affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, told ThinkProgress. "This bill is designed to demean and shame a woman in an effort to try to make her change her mind."

Several bills were also introduced that would require women to have a mandatory ultrasound 24 hours prior to having an abortion, enshrine protections for crisis pregnancy centers (CPC) from any regulations - even though CPCs have been shown to mislead women seeking an abortion or information about their options if they become pregnant - and increase inspection requirements for Missouri's only clinic.

A two-parent notification bill is the most recent piece of anti-choice legislation to be introduced, which would require both parents or the legal guardian of a minor to be notified if the minor wants to have an abortion. Under current law, one parent would also be required to provide written consent. The Guttmacher Institute reports that these laws have led to more minors travelling out of their state to another one with fewer restrictions.

1/27/2014 - Activist Launches Fundraising Drive to Open Home for Sexual Assault Survivors

A Vanderbilt University graduate and sexual violence survivor launched a fundraising drive yesterday to open a home for fellow college-aged survivors in Nashville, Tennessee.

Activist Sarah O'Brien came up with the concept for Dara House - coming from the Irish word doire and representing transformation, bravery, survivorship, and community - during her final undergraduate year at Vanderbilt University. While recovering from her own experience with sexual violence and connecting with other college-aged survivors, O'Brien said she saw a need for a safe space for those coping after an assault.

"The Dara House has been formed to address the inadequate resources, education, services, and community present on college campuses around the nation for survivors of sexual violence," according to Dara House's website. "It is our hope that by the time our residents leave Dara House they have successfully began their healing journeys, been giving the proper tools and coping mechanisms to acclimate back into campus life, and that they feel empowered over their own bodies and identities."

Dara House will serve female identifying college age individuals ages 18-25.  Applicants and residents will be enrolled in a college or university, or taking time off with the plan to return.

O'Brien launched her project's first online fundraising drive yesterday, seeking to bring in $3,000. As of Monday morning, the Go Fund Me campaign had brought in $1,310. Sunday night, O'Brien had raised enough to officially file for 501(c)(3) non-profit status.

To donate to Dara House, visit O'Brien's online fundraising page. You can also visit the project's website, like it on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.

1/27/2014 - Report Shows Increase in Officer-on-Inmate Sexual Assault in US Prisons

A new report issued by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that allegations of rape and sexual assault by prison inmates are increasing, and that 49 percent of the alleged crimes involve correctional officers.

The report, which defined sexual victimization as non-consensual sexual acts, abusive touching, threats, and verbal sexual harassment, found 8,763 cases of alleged sexual abuse of inmates in a 2011 survey of administrators across federal and state prisons, local jails, military prisons, and jails in Indian country. Collectively, the survey encompasses 1.97 million inmates. Although women prisoners comprise 7 percent of state and federal prison inmates, 33 percent of staff-on-inmate incidents involved them.

The survey also showed that although reports are increasing, prosecution is not: a growing proportion of the allegations were dismissed as "unfounded" or "unsubstantiated," and although most staff involved in misconduct cases lost their jobs, less than half were referred for prosecution and only 1 percent were convicted of a crime. Most staff members resign before their investigations come to a close, eliminating any public record of what happened and making it possible for them to remain in their field at another facility.

"These findings point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply unacceptable," Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, told ProPublica. "When corrections agencies don't punish or choose to ignore sexual abuse by staff members... they support criminal behavior."

It is unclear whether the rising number of alleged assaults indicates a general increase in violent behavior or a growing awareness by prisoners and prison administrators.

1/27/2014 - Hospital Removes Brain-Dead Pregnant Texas Woman From Life Support

Marlise Munoz, the brain-dead pregnant Texas woman who was kept on life support against her and her family's wishes, was finally disconnected from life support yesterday.

After her fetus was found to be significantly deformed and non-viable last week, the 96th District Court of Tarrant County, Texas ordered the hospital to take Munoz off of life support, and it obeyed.

According to attorneys for her family, they "will now proceed with the somber task of laying Marlise Munoz's body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered. May Marlise Munoz finally rest in peace, and her family find the strength to complete what has been an unbearably long and arduous journey."

Marlise Munoz had been brain dead since November 26 after collapsing in her home because of a possible pulmonary embolism. Even though she had made it clear while alive that she never wanted to be kept on life support with no hope of recovery if anything happened to her, her hospital would not allow it because she was 14 weeks pregnant when she died.

1/24/2014 - French National Assembly Passes Abortion Amendment Increasing Access

The French National Assembly Tuesday passed an abortion provision modifying a 1975 law which requires women to prove they are "in distress" to legally terminate a pregnancy. The accepted measure removes that language, and some lawmakers called it "archaic." It also punishes people who attempt to prevent women from entering facilities where information on abortion is accessible. The bill must be put to a vote before it passes into law.

In France, abortion is legal for up to 12 weeks, after which a woman's request must be signed off by two doctors and is only permissible if having the baby will risk her health or life, or that the baby will suffer from severe illness. Even so, France reports that as many as 220,000 women undergo the procedure each year and that 1 in 3 French women will receive an abortion in her lifetime. "Abortion is a right in itself," said France's women's rights minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, "and not something that is allowed to conditions." The state began to reimburse abortion costs last year.

The law is part of a larger gender equality bill, the most comprehensive in France's history, which also extends paternity leave to six months, increases fines on businesses and political parties for failure to reach parity, prevents media broadcasts of demeaning or sexist imagery toward women, and bans beauty pageants for girls under 13.

The New York Times called the decision "a refreshing step forward for reproductive rights," as well as "a welcome example of what governments can do to support equal rights and equal opportunities for women." The National Assembly's vote puts France in stark contrast with Spain, which is considering extremely conservative legislation that bans abortion except for cases of rape or a threat to a person's physical or psychological health.

"This might seem merely symbolic," said Vallaud-Belkacem, "but it's a strong message. Women must have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy without having to justify themselves."

1/24/2014 - Population Institute Gives US a Grade of C- in Reproductive Health and Rights

The Population Institute released its 2013 report card on reproductive health and rights in the US earlier this month, giving the nation an overall grade of "C-" for the second year in a row.

"The State of Reproductive Health and Rights: 50-State Report Card" gave thirteen states a failing grade, including Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas, among others. Only seventeen states received a "B-" or above, with four states earning an "A": Maryland, Oregon, Washington, and California. Oregon received the highest overall score. The grades were based on measures of effectiveness, prevention, affordability, and clinic access within each state. Possible changes or legislation were also taken into account.

The report discussed several national victories in the area of reproductive rights and health, and listed the "HHS ruling that Plan B One Step be made available over the counter without an age restriction, the Affordable Care Act giving women access to family planning services without a co-pay requirement, and expanded Medicaid eligibility ensuring that millions more women would be eligible to access reproductive health services." However, twenty-five states still refuse to expand Medicaid eligibility, blocking millions of women from receiving increased access to services. Additionally, the Guttmacher Institute reports there have been more legislative attacks on reproductive rights in the past three years than in the entire previous decade, with attacks continuing. "Reproductive health advocates must remain ever vigilant," said Robert Walker, president of The Population Institute.

1/24/2014 - Fetus of Brain-Dead Woman Kept On Life Support Against Wishes Found Deformed

The fetus of Marlise Munoz, the pregnant, brain-dead Texas woman who has been kept on life support by her hospital against her and her family's wishes, has been reported to be "distinctly abnormal."

According to attorneys representing Munoz' family in a lawsuit against the hospital, the fetus' lower extremities are very deformed, making its gender impossible to determine. It has hydrocephalus, or fluid building up in the skull, and it may have heart problems, but it cannot be determined because of the condition of Munoz' body. The attorneys said the fetus is "gestating within a dead and deteriorating body as the horrified family looks on."

Marlise Munoz has been brain dead since November 26, but her hospital will not let her off life support because of her pregnancy. Munoz, who was a paramedic, made it clear when she was alive that she never wanted to be kept on life support with no hope of recovery if anything ever happened to her.

But when Munoz collapsed and was found with no breath or pulse in November, possibly caused by a pulmonary embolism, she was 14 weeks pregnant. She is now 22 weeks pregnant. She had been without oxygen for too long for her brain to recover, but her heart was revived by electric shock, and doctors found a fetal heartbeat. Under the Texas Advance Directives Act, the state of Texas requires that "a person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient." The hospital interpreted this to invalidate her wishes, even though experts interviewed by the Associated Press said a brain-dead patient would not be covered by the law. A 2012 report by the Center for Women Policy Studies found that Texas is one of 12 US states that invalidate a woman's end-of-life wishes if she is pregnant.

A hearing is scheduled in the lawsuit for today.

1/23/2014 - ACLU Seeks Investigation of Stereotype-Based Single-Sex Education Program

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Wisconsin asked the federal Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education last week to investigate a single-sex education program at a Wisconsin middle school.

The program at Somerset Middle School relies on harmful stereotypes about boys and girls. Their materials outlining differences between genders claims that girls and boys are genetically programmed to learn differently, girls hear better, boys are messy, and teams work better for boys because boys value team affiliation above friendship, among others.

"There is no solid evidence supporting the assertions about supposed differences between boys' and girls' brains that underlie these programs, and there is absolutely no evidence that teaching boys and girls differently leads to any educational improvements," said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "It's harmful for schools to promote these types of generalizations about boys and girls."

The ACLU claims the program is unlawful and does not have any valid evidence to support it. It may violate Title IX, which bans discrimination in education on the basis of sex. Additionally, it cites a recent article in the journal Science that argues that sex segregation fosters stereotypes and does not improve academic performance.

A similar complaint against two other Wisconsin schools was filed last March. The complaints are part of ACLU's national "Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes" campaign to gather information about sex stereotypes in single-sex education.

1/23/2014 - Chicago Archdiocese Documents Reveal Extensive Sexual Abuse Cover-Up

The Archdiocese of Chicago released internal documents on Tuesday revealing its active role in concealing the sexual abuse of children by clergy for decades. The documents show the lengths taken to protect priests, with complete disregard for the safety and well-being of abused children or those at risk.

"It's a big victory for these 40 brave men and women who had the courage to step forward, seek justice and file lawsuits, and to endure 8 years of needless delay from the archdiocese of Chicago," said David Clohessy, the Executive Director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "Frankly it's a victory for every survivor, for those who desperately want to see the names of those who committed and those who concealed child sex crimes."

The 6,000 pages of internal communications, meeting schedules where allegations were discussed, testimony, and letters were released through settlements between attorneys for the victims and the archdiocese. They reveal that leaders in the archdiocese, including the late Cardinal John Cody, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and the current Cardinal Francis George, moved priests to different parishes when they were accused of abuse to protect them. They would ask other priests to monitor their behavior around children, but they would not inform the police. Prosecution was rarely pursued because of a fear of losing parishioners or potential priests, damaging their image, and in one case, because the priest "sounded repentant," according to Al Jazeera.

The documents reflect [a] systematic, ongoing, decades-long continuous pattern of conscious choices by top officials of the archdiocese from Cardinal Cody to Bernardin to Cardinal George, attorney Jeff Anderson told the Chicago Sun-Times. Anderson and another attorney Marc Pearlman represented over 50 victims and negotiated the release of the documents. "Blame is also to be shared by bishops, members of the clergy and other top officials, each of whom became aware of reports that priests were offending children, and they made intentional and conscious choices to conceal that, to protect the priests, protect the reputation of the archdiocese and in effect conceal the crime and give safe harbor to the offender."

The documents reveal information about only 30 of the 65 clergy who the Chicago archdiocese says have been accused of child sexual abuse. Documents about the Vatican's involvement were not included.

Globally, thousands more priests have been accused of child sexual abuse but protected from any repercussions. In the US alone between 1950 and 2010, 6,100 priests were accused of abuse, leading to an estimated 100,000 victims, according to Barbara Blaine, President of SNAP.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) held a hearing last week for the Vatican to address global child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and their role in protecting perpetrators, but it's leaders have yet to take real responsibility for their involvement.