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10/10/2014 - Catholic Church Files Civil Rights Complaint Against State Over Abortion Mandate

California's Catholic leaders have filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services over a recent decision by the state to mandate that religiously affiliated universities there offer full abortion coverage in their employees' health care plans.

Earlier this year, the California Lawyer learned that despite the state's commitment to fully protect comprehensive reproductive rights, two Catholic universities - Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara - had discontinued coverage for "not medically necessary" abortion services for their employees. In August, the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) Director Michelle Rouillard called those decisions discriminatory in a letter to their insurance providers and mandated that they cover the procedure in all instances.

The Catholic church claims the state's mandate was a violation of the Weldon Amendment, which allows the government to withhold federal money from agencies that discriminate against doctors, hospitals, or insurers that don't offer abortion coverage. But local reproductive rights advocates say any effort to deny coverage would adversely impact the many for the sake of the few.

"California is better than that," the Legislative Women's Caucus wrote this summer in a letter to California Governer Jerry Brown. "We respect women's autonomy and proudly separate ourselves from the anti-choice states whose policies diminish women's rights." Attention to California law on mandatory abortion insurance access led to the late-August guidance issued by the DMHC, which called language about "medically-necessary" or "therapeutic" abortions discriminatory against women.

Sierra Harris, the Assistant Director of the Access Women's Health Justice, told the Feminist Newswire that their group consistently works with Californians who aren't covered under any form of health insurance and noted that there is a grave need for expanded reproductive health access through the state's health exchange. "We support all insurance coverage in California that covers abortion services," Harris said. "We really hope California remains a leader in reproductive health services."

Although a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights says the new complaint from the Catholic conference is under review, Rouillard has reiterated that the agency considers abortion a basic health care service.

Many religious colleges have tried to cut abortion and contraceptive coverage by challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act, which requires health insurance providers to cover preventive health services - including all FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the pill, emergency contraceptives, and IUDs - without charging co-pays, deductibles, or co-insurance. In July, a majority of the US Supreme Court ruled that Wheaton College does not have to comply with the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit; the University of Notre Dame also recently asked the Court to intervene in its own case against the Obama administration objecting to the mandate's accommodation for religiously affiliated non-profits that allows their insurers to cover contraception directly.


Media Resources: California Catholic Conference 10/1/14; CBS Sacramento 10/1/14; Associated Press 10/1/14; California Lawyer 6/2014; California Legislative Women's Caucus 8/12/14; Los Angeles Times 8/25/14; California Department of Managed Health Care 8/22/14; MSNBC 10/6/14; Feminist Newswire 7/7/14, 8/25/14


10/9/2014 - Staff at Immigration Center Accused of Sexually Abusing Women Detainees

Several civil rights organizations have filed a complaint against a privately run detention center in Texas, citing widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.

Last week, attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado asked the Department of Homeland Security and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to investigate the newly-opened Karnes County Residential Center, where more than 500 mothers and children have been detained.

According to the complaint, at least three facility guards and staff have removed "female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility; calling detainees their 'novias,' or 'girlfriends' and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children." The groups say the offenses are a clear abuse of the detained's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which institutes a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and rape in certain federally-operated facilities.

Detainees reported the abuses to Karnes personnel, but so far, no significant action has been taken to stop the harassment. "These women and children have fled horrific conditions in their home countries, including sexual violence and extortion," Marisa Bono, staff attorney with MALDEF, said. "Guards using their respective positions of power to abuse vulnerable, traumatized women all over again is not only despicable, it's against the law." Bono said the allegations prove the federal government should "not be in the business of detaining families."

The complaint comes just a week after a second complaint against Karnes was filed by many of the same organizations. That complaint detailed disproportionate disciplinary tactics and limited food, health, and mental health services. Barbara Hines, Co-Director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, said called these new allegations "particularly disturbing" in light of ICE's refusal to release some mothers and children on bond, even when they've met the threshold for an asylum claim.

The Karnes County Residential Center opened August 1, through an intergovernmental partnership between long-time private prison operator the Geo Group, Inc. and Karnes County. While DHS and ICE are responsible for enforcement of PREA's zero-tolerance policy prohibiting rape and sexual assault and other offenses, Karnes is not licensed under Texas state child welfare standards, which complicates the federal agencies' oversight power.

"It is clear from both the alleged and continuing conduct and the failure to respond to reports of abuse that either there is no prevention plan in place for the Karnes Center, or the Karnes Center policy is not being properly implemented, overseen, or enforced," the complaint reads. "DHS simply cannot continue to detain vulnerable individuals whom they are unable or unwilling to protect."

In December, a bipartisan group of Congress members urged the President to issue stronger protections to prevent the sexual abuse of immigrant detainees. Since then, feminist activists have continued to push for comprehensive immigration reform and an end to deportations by the Obama administration. The allegations also come on the heels of a complaint filed this summer against US Customs and Border Protection agents working at the US-Mexico border in Texas and Arizona citing 116 allegations of child abuse.


10/9/2014 - UPDATE: Supreme Court Justice Delays Marriage Equality in Idaho

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy halted a decision Wednesday that would have allowed same sex couples to marry in Idaho.

The Justice issued a one-page order requiring the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to delay a Tuesday ruling striking down Idaho's same-sex marriage ban and calling them unconstitutional until either Kennedy or the full Supreme Court weighed in. Justice Kennedy's order came in response to an emergency filing from Idaho state officials, who argue their case is unique enough to warrant the involvement of the full Supreme Court. Although the Ninth Circuit Court ruling also applied to Nevada, the state has not filed an appeal. Now, same sex couples in Idaho still cannot legally obtain marriage licenses.

The Supreme Court Monday elected not to take up cases concerning marriage equality in five states that were left pending before the court. Some legal analysts expected the decision, citing the unity of the lower courts on the decision to strike down bans on gay marriage. State officials in Idaho, however, said the content of their argument isn't about whether states can ban same-sex marriage. According to SCOTUSBlog, they're asking the Court to "clarify the constitutional standard that is to be used in judging laws that are claimed to discriminate against gays, lesbians, and transgender people." State officials said the lower courts have used different standards to support a ban of same-sex marriage. The Ninth Circuit applied a "heightened scrutiny" standard, but six other federal appeals courts did not.

Lawyers representing same sex couples have until Thursday night to file a response to Idaho's emergency plea request.


10/8/2014 - Marriage Equality Set to Take Hold in 35 States Following Court Rulings

Following the US Supreme Court's decision Monday to decline review of three federal appeals courts' decisions striking down same-sex marriage bans in five states, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada, bringing the number of states in which same-sex marriage bans are effectively null and void to 35.

Monday's decision by the Supreme Court immediately expanded the number of states were same-sex marriage is legal from 19 to 24. At issue was whether the Supreme Court would review decisions from the US Courts of Appeal for the the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits striking down marriage bans in  Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The Court refused, immediately making same-sex marriage legal in those states. However, the decision also effectively ended bans in six additional states falling under those three circuits - Colorado, Kansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wyoming - bringing the total number of states where same-sex marriage would be legal to 30.

Following the news, Mary Bonauto of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) said that the Supreme Court had sent “a powerful signal to the many other courts considering the issue that there is no reason to delay and perpetuate the harms to same-sex couples around the nation.”

Just one day after the Supreme Court issued its order, the Ninth Circuit ruled that same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada were unconstitutional. This ruling is the law of the land in that Circuit, which means that same-sex marriage bans in Alaska, Arizona, and Montana - which are all subject to legal challenges in federal courts - are also set to fall. In total, 35 states are now expected to soon allow same-sex marriages.

The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit unanimously found that the marriage bans denied same-sex couples equal treatment under the law. Judge Marsha Berzon also wrote separately that the bans were a form of unlawful discrimination based on gender. Judge Berzon compared same-sex marriage bans to "laws that strip individuals of their rights or restrict personal choices or opportunities solely on the basis of the individuals’ gender" and found that the bans were impermissibly based in gender stereotypes. Such laws, wrote Berzon, "are damaging because they restrict individual choices by punishing those men and women who do not fit the stereotyped mold." She concludes, "The same-sex marriage prohibitions, in other words, impose harms on sexual orientation and gender identity minorities precisely because they impose and enforce gender-normative behavior."

Nevada is not expected to appeal the Ninth Circuit decision. Idaho may seek Supreme Court review, though given Monday's decision, review is unlikely. It may also ask the full Ninth Circuit to review the decision.

Three other federal circuit courts of appeal are currently considering the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. If one of these courts were to rule in favor of a ban, the Supreme Court could once again be asked to weigh in, and might be more likely to do so. The circuits are the Sixth, with challenges in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee; Fifth, with challenges in Louisiana and Texas; and Eleventh, with challenges in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Lower federal courts in the Eighth Circuit are also considering same-sex marriage bans in Missouri, North Dakota, and South Dakota.


10/8/2014 - Georgetown University Administrators Apologize for Shutting Down H*yas for Choice Protest

Georgetown University has formally apologized to students and alumni following a university police response to an off-campus H*yas for Choice protest last week that sparked outrage.

On September 22, the Georgetown Department of Public Safety (DPS) forced the H*yas for Choice to relocate from an off-campus sidewalk, where they were "quietly presenting an alternative view" to the school's decision to grant an honorary degree to Washington, DC Archbishop Donald Wuerl. In a response to more than 200 alumni signed on to a letter to university President John J. DeGioia expressing concerns about the incident, the Georgetown University Vice President for Student Affairs and the Vice President of Public Affairs seemed to call the event a misunderstanding.

In the letter to alumni, university leadership said the removal "should not have occurred." According to school officials, the officer involved invited the students to move back to their original location after "realizing the mistake," but Police Chief Jay Gruber has scheduled additional training for DPS officers about students' rights under the University's Speech and Expression policy in light of the incident. "We share Chief Gruber's regret in how our DPS officer responded in this case and please know that we will work to prevent it from happening in the future," the letter stated.

H*yas for Choice, a student group, is not formally recognized by the university. The President of the organization, Abby Grace, said the group chose the protest location precisely because University police forced them to relocate there during a different protest last year.


10/7/2014 - Texas Providers Ask Supreme Court to Block Restrictive Abortion Law

Reproductive health care providers in Texas have asked the US Supreme Court to block enforcement of unnecessary, harmful abortion restrictions in Texas that have closed all but eight of the state's abortion clinics overnight.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, on behalf of the health care providers, filed an emergency application with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after Thursday's decision by the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to allow the immediate enforcement of two provisions - the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements - of the Texas omnibus anti-abortion law, HB 2.

Before the enactment of HB2, Texas had 44 abortion clinics. That number was cut to 21 after parts of HB 2 went into effect, and the Fifth Circuit's decision shuttered 13 more. As of Friday, the Rio Grande valley has not one abortion provider, and nearly one million women of reproductive age must now travel 300 miles round-trip to access abortion care.

"There can be no question that just a handful of clinics left to offer safe, legal abortion care to all women across of vast state of Texas is a dire emergency in need of an immediate response," said Center for Reproductive Rights President and CEO Nancy Northup. "Every hour that these clinics are closed adds to the number of women, many facing urgent circumstances, who will be denied essential care and their constitutional rights. Every day that passes increases the likelihood that these shuttered clinics will never be able to open again."

"Texas politicians, led by Governor Rick Perry, have closed not only nearly 80 percent of the state's women's clinics offering abortion services, but they have also closed an additional 55 clinics that do not provide abortion but provide birth control services, early cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and other vital women's health services," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "This is a total reactionary war on women's health services. Young women will die, will be injured and maimed, to further their narrow political interests and ambitions."

Both the admitting privileges requirement and the requirement that abortion clinics meet the building code specifications of ambulatory surgical centers were struck down as unconstitutional by US District Court Judge Lee Yeakel in August. The Fifth Circuit ruling nullified Yeakel's decision. The emergency application asks Justice Scalia, who oversees the Fifth Circuit, to block enforcement of these provisions pending a final outcome of the case. He may either decide the application himself or refer it to the entire Court.


10/6/2014 - Religious Leaders Unite in Tennessee and Colorado to Oppose Extreme Anti-Abortion Ballot Measures

Local religious leaders have come together to denounce ballot measures in Tennessee and Colorado that, if passed, would jeopardize access to abortion in those states.

At Sunday services last week, local clergy from Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, United Pentecostal, Presbyterian and Free Will Baptist churches, as well as leaders of other faiths, spoke out against Tennessee's Amendment 1, which would allow the government to interfere with women's personal health decisions. Tennessee voters will decide on Amendment 1 in the upcoming election. Election day is November 4, but Tennessee voters can vote early, in-person, from October 15 to October 30.

"Who decides what's best for a woman's health? A rape victim and her minister, or a religious zealot who would impose his will on all Tennessee women and families?" said Rabbi Micah Greenstein at a gathering of 40 Memphis-area clergy at Evergreen Presbyterian Church last Wednesday.

If passed by Tennessee voters on November 4, Amendment 1 would allow state politicians to pass laws that ban abortion even in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the health or life of the woman. Politicians could pass state laws that would deny lifesaving treatments to pregnant women with critical illnesses like cancer, or even ban access to common forms of birth control, like the pill, IUDs, and emergency contraception, that they consider - contrary to respected medical information - to be abortifacients.

Amendment 1 would change the Tennessee state constitution to read: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother." In effect, if passed, Amendment 1 would give state politicians the right to make decisions about the health and lives of women, and takes those rights away from women and their doctors.

Tennessee is not the only state with potentially devastating measures on the ballot this Fall. In North Dakota, voters will decide on Measure 1, a personhood amendment that would change the state constitution to provide an "inalienable right to life" at "any stage of development." If passed, Measure 1 would ban all abortions in the state, without exception, and could make illegal many forms of birth control, stem-cell research and in vitro fertilization. Measure 1 also threatens end-of-life care and could interfere with organ donation. And although Colorado voters defeated broad personhood amendments to their state's constitution in 2008 and 2010, Personhood Colorado has placed Amendment 67 on the ballot this year, which would amend the state constitution to include "unborn human beings" in the definitions of "person" and "child" in the state criminal code and Wrongful Death Act.

"Though the strategy is arguably different, the result is the same," wrote Gaylynn Burroughs, Director of Policy & Research for the Feminist Majority Foundation, in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms. magazine. "If passed, Amendment 67 would threaten abortion rights, birth control, fertility treatments and some medical treatments for critically ill pregnant women and open up the possibility of criminal investigations into miscarriages. All pregnant women's bodies would become potential crime scenes. Supporters of the amendment claim that the change would protect pregnant women from crime but we've heard that one before. The reality is that these laws are used to punish women, many who are struggling with drug dependency and mental-health issues and too often suffer tragic pregnancy outcomes."

Over 80 faith leaders in Colorado have also united in opposition to the extreme ballot measure in their state. "We support the rights of conscience, and a woman's capacity to make a personal decision with consultation from her doctor, her family, her clergy and her God," remarked Reverend Jann Halloran, president of the board of the Colorado Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in a statement released last month. Rabbi Joseph Black, head of the largest Jewish congregation in Colorado, echoed her sentiments.

"While my tradition upholds the sanctity of life, the life and health of the mother is always more important than that of a fetus," Rabbi Black wrote. "To claim that a fertilized egg is anything other than a potential life is to go against Jewish values. It is a dangerous precedent."

Colorado voters can vote early in-person beginning on October 20. Coloradans may also vote by mail. Ballots are mailed to every Colorado voter on October 14.


10/6/2014 - Experts Recommend IUDs and Contraceptive Implants for Sexually Active Teenagers

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested sexually active teenagers use contraceptive implants and intrauterine devices (IUDs) over other forms of birth control.

This is the first time the AAP has suggested pediatricians recommend long-acting reversible contraceptive methods (LARCs) such as IUDs and implants before recommending other, less-effective forms of birth control to sexually active teens. The new policy statement, which says pediatricians play a large role in reducing teen pregnancy, replaces a statement that was written in 2007. The AAP first began recommending contraceptive methods to members in 1980; the academy suggests pediatricians be fully educated on different methods of contraception.

"Pediatricians should be able to educate adolescent patients about LARC methods, including the progestin implant and IUDs," the AAP writes in the October issue of Pediatrics. "Given the efficacy, safety, and ease of use, LARC methods should be considered first-line contraceptive choices for adolescents. Some pediatricians may choose to acquire the skills to provide these methods to adolescents."

The AAP also emphasized that pediatricians should stress that "all methods of hormonal birth control are safer than pregnancy." Adolescent pregnancy is associated with higher risk of illness and death for mother and infant. Pregnant teenagers are at increased risk for hypertension, pre-eclampsia, and anemia. Pregnancy also increases the risk of violence for some teens.

In announcing the new policy, the AAP stressed the importance of pediatricians encouraging "healthy sexual health decision-making," which includes abstinence as well as proper condom use for sexually active teens as a method of preventing sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. The AAP notes that "perfect adherence to abstinence is low," and recommends that pediatricians "not rely on abstinence counseling alone but should additionally provide access to comprehensive sexual health information to all adolescents."

About 750,000 adolescents become pregnant in the US every year, according to the AAP, and more than 80 percent of those pregnancies are unplanned. Of all teen pregnancies in the US, 60 percent result in birth. And about 5 percent of all abortions in the US are obtained by minor. In part because it does not require its user to remember to take or use something every day or every time they have sex, the IUD's failure rate is less than 1 percent and implants have a failure rate of .05 percent - that's compared with a 9 percent failure rate for oral contraceptives and a 18 percent failure rate for male condoms.

The AAP revised policy on LARCs comes after the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), based on research and expert opinions, revised its guidelines on LARCs in 2012, saying sexually active adolescents should be encouraged to use these methods. In its revision, ACOG noted that 42 percent of people ages 15-19 years old have had sexual intercourse, and that most adolescents use birth control but tend to use short-acting contraceptive methods (oral contraceptives, condoms, vaginal rings, etc.), which are less effective than LARCs. More information on different types of LARCs can be found here.

Media Resources: RH Reality Check 9/30/2014; American Academy of Pediatrics 9/29/14; Pediatrics 9/29/2014; Guttmacher Institute 5/2014; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 8/28/2013; Advocates for Youth 10/2012; The American College�of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 10/2014; California Family Health Council; National Institutes of Health


10/3/2014 - Federal Appeals Court Blocks Access to Abortion in Texas

The state of Texas lost all but eight of its abortion clinics overnight after the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the state could begin enforcing unnecessary and harmful abortion restrictions passed as part of Texas's omnibus anti-abortion bill, HB 2, last year. Now, close to 1 million women of reproductive age will now have to travel more than 150 miles to the nearest clinic, preventing access to abortion for many.

More than half of Texas's abortion clinics had already been forced to close before the Fifth Circuit's ruling, and reports showed that this lack of access was already forcing some women to resort to illegal and unsafe methods to end their pregnancies. In addition, clinic closures compromise access to a wide range of comprehensive reproductive health care services, including birth control and life-saving cancer screenings.

"It's shocking and a disgrace. Women will suffer, some will die because of this reactionary policy," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "Feminist must organize to stop these attacks."

In its decision issued yesterday, a divided 2-1 panel of the Fifth Circuit allowed a provision of HB 2 requiring abortion clinics in Texas to meet the stringent building code requirements of ambulatory surgical centers to go into effect. That decision shuttered 13 clinics immediately. The appeals court also ruled that the law's admitting privileges requirement - a provision that has already closed around half of the state's abortion clinics, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights - could be applied to clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas.

"Today our hearts are broken on behalf of the women and families in Texas that have been left behind by this 5th circuit ruling," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, in a statement released after the decision. "What we have been fearing now if official: Texas faces a health care crisis, brought on by its own legislators."

The Texas state legislature passed HB 2 last year amid strong protest from women's rights and reproductive health activists. Wendy Davis successfully filibustered the bill in June 2013, but Governor Rick Perry (R) called a special session to pass it. In addition to the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements, the law also bans abortion after 20 weeks and restricts medication abortion. Texas had 44 abortion clinics prior to HB 2. That number was cut to 21 after parts of HB 2 went into effect, and yesterday's decision eviscerated 13 more clinics.

George W. Bush appointee, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, wrote the majority opinion in the 2-1 panel decision, overturning the decision of District Judge Lee Yeakel finding the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements unconstitutional. A separate challenge to the Texas admitting privileges requirement is also making its way through the federal courts.

Activists will be protesting today at noon on the south steps of the the Texas State Capitol.


10/3/2014 - White House Releases Updated Title IX Guidance on Campus Sexual Assault

As part of the "It's On Us" campaign to end campus sexual assault by changing campus culture, the White House has released guidance to assist with enforcement of institutional Title IX policies.

The documents released include a "Guide to Drafting a Sexual Assault Policy," "Definitions of Key Terms in Sexual Misconduct Policies," the "Role of Title IX Coordinator," and how to include "Interim and Supportive Measures for Victims."

All education institutions in the United States that receive federal funding must adhere to Title IX policies. One of these policies includes having at least one employee in charge of coordinating efforts to comply with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in school programs or activities. The Title IX coordinator can also be the person who implements the school's sexual misconduct policy and responds to misconduct allegations.

The White House guidance also includes a definition of consent as something that is "informed, voluntary, and mutual, and can be withdrawn at any time." The definition explains, "There is no consent when there is force, expressed or implied, or when coercion, intimidation, threats, or duress is used. Whether a person has taken advantage of a position of influence over another person may be a factor in determining consent. Silence or absence of resistance does not imply consent. Past consent to sexual activity with another person does not imply ongoing future consent with that person or consent to that same sexual activity with another person."

The guidelines also include a checklist for how to properly develop a sexual misconduct policy, information for reporting sexual misconduct, how to support a survivor of sexual assault, and specific definitions that go along with these policies.

"Our society still does not sufficiently value women," President Barack Obama said during the unveiling of the campaign. "Unless women are allowed to fulfill their full potential, America will not fulfill its full potential [Laws] won't be enough unless we change the culture that allows assault to happen in the first place."

Vice President Joe Biden has emphasized that men must be involved. "Violence against women is not a women's issue alone, it's a men's issue," said Vice President Joe Biden said. "To all the guys out there: Step up. Be responsible. Intervene."

According to a White House report released early this year, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted during their time in college and only 12 percent report the crime. Currently over 70 colleges and universities are under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases.

It's On Us is an ongoing part of the "Not Alone" campaign and pushes for students to recognize sexual assault for what it is, identify warning signs, intervene when it seems consent cannot or has not been given, and change their campus cultures so that survivors are supported and sexual assault is seen as unacceptable. Individuals can participate in It's On Us by going to ItsOnUs.org and taking the pledge, or by going a step further and downloading the free toolkit to help implement the campaign in their school or community.


10/3/2014 - Federal Appeals Court Blocks Access to Abortion in Texas

The state of Texas lost all but eight of its abortion clinics overnight after the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the state could begin enforcing unnecessary and harmful abortion restrictions passed as part of Texas's omnibus anti-abortion bill, HB 2, last year. Now, close to 1 million women of reproductive age will now have to travel more than 150 miles to the nearest clinic, preventing access to abortion for many.

More than half of Texas's abortion clinics had already been forced to close before the Fifth Circuit's ruling, and reports showed that this lack of access was already forcing some women to resort to illegal and unsafe methods to end their pregnancies. In addition, clinic closures compromise access to a wide range of comprehensive reproductive health care services, including birth control and life-saving cancer screenings.

"It's shocking and a disgrace. Women will suffer, some will die because of this reactionary policy," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "Feminist must organize to stop these attacks."

In its decision issued yesterday, a divided 2-1 panel of the Fifth Circuit allowed a provision of HB 2 requiring abortion clinics in Texas to meet the stringent building code requirements of ambulatory surgical centers to go into effect. That decision shuttered 13 clinics immediately. The appeals court also ruled that the law's admitting privileges requirement - a provision that has already closed around half of the state's abortion clinics, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights - could be applied to clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas.

"Today our hearts are broken on behalf of the women and families in Texas that have been left behind by this 5th circuit ruling," said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, in a statement released after the decision. "What we have been fearing now if official: Texas faces a health care crisis, brought on by its own legislators."

The Texas state legislature passed HB 2 last year amid strong protest from women's rights and reproductive health activists. Wendy Davis successfully filibustered the bill in June 2013, but Governor Rick Perry (R) called a special session to pass it. In addition to the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements, the law also bans abortion after 20 weeks and restricts medication abortion. Texas had 44 abortion clinics prior to HB 2. That number was cut to 21 after parts of HB 2 went into effect, and yesterday's decision eviscerated 13 more clinics.

George W. Bush appointee, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, wrote the majority opinion in the 2-1 panel decision, overturning the decision of District Judge Lee Yeakel finding the ambulatory surgical center and admitting privileges requirements unconstitutional. A separate challenge to the Texas admitting privileges requirement is also making its way through the federal courts.

Activists will be protesting today at noon on the south steps of the the Texas State Capitol.


10/3/2014 - UN Speaks Out Against Islamic State Attacks on Women

The United Nations last week condemned the brutal killings of women by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also know as ISIS.

In a recent attack, Sameera Salih Ali Al-Nuaimya, a well-known lawyer and women's rights activist, was publicly executed by a masked firing squad in Mosul. According to the United Nations, said Al-Nuaimy was taken from her home by ISIL fighters on September 17, after posting comments that were critical of the group on her Facebook page. Al-Nuaimy denounced the "barbaric bombing and destroying of mosques and shrines in Mosul." The group tortured Al-Nuaimy for five days, convicting her of apostasy in a Shari'a court before killing her.

"By torturing and executing a female human rights' lawyer and activist, defending in particular the civil and human rights of her fellow citizens in Mosul, ISIL continues to attest to its infamous nature, combining hatred, nihilism, and savagery, as well as its total disregard of human decency," Nickolay Mladenov said. Mladenov is the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq. "ISIL has repeatedly targeted the weak and defenseless in acts of brutality and cowardice that are beyond description, bringing about unfathomable suffering to all Iraqis regardless of their gender, age, religion, faith or ethnicity."

The UN said Al-Nuaimy's assassination is only the latest incident in a string of targeted and ruthless attacks carried out against prominent female leaders. In July, the UN said ISIL fighters killed a female former candidate for Iraq's parliament after storming her home. In a separate attack, the group invaded the home of another female candidate, killing and abducting her husband. The same day, a third female candidate was kidnapped by gunmen in eastern Mosul. The UN says she is still missing.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said they've received "numerous" reports of other women who've been murdered by fighters in ISIL-controlled territories, and condemned "gross human rights violations," including "rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children" by those fighting in Northern Iraq. "Educated, professional women seem to be particularly at risk," according to the UN.

The UN has also spoken out against the mass abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and girls in particular. According to the BBC, tens of thousands of the Yazidi religious minority have fled the Islamic State in just the last month. Yazidi survivors, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups, said the militants are trafficking the women for sex, corralling them into camps where victims have been brutally raped and beaten by ISIL and ISIS fighters. While there is no confirmed number, more than 3,000 Yazidi are believed to have been captured, with more than 5,000 men, women, and children still unaccounted for.


10/2/2014 - Court Reinstates Same Day Voter Registration in North Carolina

A federal appeals court blocked North Carolina's effort to end same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting - methods disproportionately used by minority voters - overturning a decision by a lower court just last month.

In a 2-1 decision issued yesterday, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that these provisions of H.B. 589, the voter suppression measure signed into law by Republican Governor Pat McCrory last year were likely to violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which explicitly bans race or language-minority based disenfranchisement.

"Everyone in this case agrees that Section 2 has routinely been used to address vote dilution - which basically allows all voters to 'sing' but forces certain groups to do so pianissimo," Judge James Wynn wrote for the majority. "Vote denial is simply a more extreme form of the same pernicious violation - those groups are not simply made to sing quietly; instead their voices are silenced completely."

Elimination of same-day voter registration would have a disproportionate impact on African American voters in North Carolina. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than 70 percent of African-American voters used early voting in 2008 and 2012, and as Judge Wynn highlighted, a disproportionate number of African Americans availed themselves of same-day registration. In 2012, 13.4 percent of African Americans who voted early in the state used same-day registration, versus 7.2 percent of white voters; in 2008, 13.1 percent of African Americans used this system versus 8.9 percent of whites.

The appeals court ruling means that during the early voting period, voters in North Carolina will, for this election at least, be able to register to vote and vote on the same-day, at the same early voting site. The early voting period runs between October 23 and November 1. A North Carolina voter will also be allowed to cast a ballot even if they are out-of-precinct, so long as she is otherwise eligible to vote.

"This is a victory for voters in the state of North Carolina," said Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the organizations that filed the case. "The court has rebuked attempts to undermine voter participation."

Citing possible voter confusion, the North Carolina Board of Elections announced that the state would appeal the Fourth Circuit's decision to the US Supreme Court as soon as Thursday.


10/2/2014 - Virginia Health Commissioner Recommends Amending State TRAP Law

Virginia Commissioner of Health Dr. Marissa Levine yesterday reccomended that Virginia's harsh TRAP rules restricting abortion access within the state be amended.

The decision comes after Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered a periodic review of the regulations, expressing concern that the TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) rules were "extreme and punitive" and could endanger women's health. During the public comment period, the Virginia Department of Health received over 10,000 comments, about 80 percent of the total number of comments received, urging repeal or revisions to the existing rules.

The Commissioner had until October 1 to recommend whether to repeal, amend, or uphold the regulations. Explaining that she did not feel she had authority to repeal the law, Dr. Levine recommended amendment. She called the clinic rules "arbitrary" and "marked by political interference."

The Virginia Board of Health approved the existing regulations in 2013 under pressure from anti-choice, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. The rules, which have already forced at least two clinics in the state to close, require clinics to have the same physical architectural standards as newly built hospitals. Examples of the changes required by the regulations include making additional parking available, replacing existing ceilings, and adding showers to all facilities for staff members.

The Board of Health had initially exempted existing clinics from the rules, but reversed itself after Cuccinelli, who unsuccessfully ran for Virginia governor in 2013, threatened Board members with the denial of state legal counsel.

"There is a perception across the commonwealth that the Board of Health was pressured into approving rules that impede the ability of women to access preventive services and even sometimes lifesaving care," Governor McAuliffe stated when ordering his review. "Let me be clear - I share those concerns."

Dr. Levine's decision will now be presented to the full Board of Health for a vote at its December 4 meeting.

"Commissioner Levine's decision today is an important first step to right a wrong and fix these dangerous restrictions on women's health centers ," said Tarina Keene, co-chair of the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health, following the announcement. "The current restrictions were designed to shut down women's health centers and cut off access to comprehensive reproductive health care for Virginia's women and families, including life-saving cancer screenings, birth control, and safe, legal first-trimester abortion."

Keene urged the Board of Health to approve Dr. Levine's recommendations and to "ensure that these regulations are based in medicine - not politics."


10/1/2014 - Afghanistan and US Finalize Bilateral Security Agreement

In a nationally televised ceremony at the Presidential Palace just one day after President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai took office, Afghanistan signed a major security agreement with the United States. The agreement will allow continued U.S. assistance with security and counterterrorism efforts beyond December 31.

At the end of this year, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan will draw to a close after 13 years, but the newly minted pact between Afghanistan and the United States, known as the bilateral security agreement, or BSA, will allow the U.S. to continue to provide assistance to strengthen the security and stability of Afghanistan, including coordinating counterterrorism efforts.

The BSA provides no combat role for U.S. troops, and President Obama has stated that the U.S. will continue to decrease the number of troops on the ground to 9,800 through the end of 2015. In June 2013, U.S. and NATO transferred security and combat responsibilities to the Afghan armed forces and began the drawdown of troops.

On Tuesday, President Ahmadzai also signed a separate agreement with NATO: the status-of-forces-agreement (SOFA). The SOFA further defines the role of international forces in Afghanistan and emphasizes training and advising of Afghan troops.

The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) has been leading combat operations in Afghanistan for over a year. Although the ANSF has been praised by international leaders, Afghan troops are still in need of assistance with intelligence-gathering, logistics, and medical support. International assistance is therefore necessary to ensure security in the country.

Women's rights leaders have long supported continued international support in Afghanistan, including through the BSA. Many feared that without a security agreement, the Taliban would be emboldened in the country and set back important gains made by Afghan women since 2001.

Those fears were addressed at the BSA signing by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham. "By providing clarity about our security relationship," he remarked, "the Agreement opens the way for continued efforts to promote development in health, education, communications, women's issues, justice, and economic growth."

President Obama also hailed the agreement stating the the United States would work with the new government of Afghanistan "to cement an enduring partnership that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, unity, and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates."

The new Afghan president's comments also signaled his belief that the BSA would strengthen Afghanistan. "This agreement will pave the way for peace, it will not be an obstacle to peace," said Ahmadzai. The president also stated�that the agreement is a sign of respect for Afghan sovereignty, and the democratic vote of the Afghan people.


9/30/2014 - Georgetown Alumni Call Out University for Not Allowing Reproductive Rights Protests

Over 200 Georgetown University alumni have sent a letter to university President John J. DeGioia expressing "dismay and strong concern" regarding an incident on September 22 in which campus police shut down a protest, conducted just off-campus, by H*yas for Choice.

H*yas for Choice - a student group that remains unrecognized by the university - had set up a table on a sidewalk just off-campus in silent protest of the university's decision to grant an honorary degree to Archbishop of Washington Donald Cardinal Wuerl. According to the student newspaper The Hoya, group members say they are against Wuerl's stance on women's health and LGBT rights.

Only five minutes after the students had set up their table, campus police told group members that they had to leave the area. About an hour later, the same officer informed the group, without explanation, that they they could return to the sidewalk.

Abby Grace, President of H*yas for Choice said that the group had chosen the sidewalk location precisely because it was off-campus. In addition, the university had last year, during a protest of the Cardinal O'Connor Conference on Life, relocated the group from an on-campus site to that exact location.

"I'm really questioning where they got the authority to move someone from a public sidewalk," said Grace. "I think that that is just showing a blatant lack of training when it comes to what students' rights are on and off campus, what should be happening and how the university selectively chooses to support some speech and systematically oppress other speech."

In their letter, Georgetown alumni echoed Grace's concerns. The letter explains that H*yas for Choice was "quietly presenting an alternative view to official church teachings by advocating for reproductive rights, women's rights, and equal rights regardless of sexual orientation." It continues, "Georgetown has long played a leadership role in policy debates as the premier institution of higher learning in our nation's capital. It can no longer do so if only one view may be stated."

The Georgetown alumni argue that debate and open dialogue should be encouraged - even at a Catholic university. Georgetown had recently revised its policy on speech and expression to create "speech zones" on campus. But the Georgetown alumni believe this revision of policy is not enough.

"While this effort may have been designed to give clarity as to where H*yas for Choice and other unsponsored student groups may express their views, recent events demonstrate that such an objective has not been achieved," they wrote. "The designation of free speech zones in itself serves to segregate and stigmatize certain speakers."

The 232 alumni who signed the letter are requesting "an affirmation" that the University allow H*yas for Choice to fully express their beliefs in the future.


9/30/2014 - US Supreme Court Shuts Down First Week of Early Voting in Ohio

Less than 24 hours before the start of Ohio's would-be voting period, the Supreme Court blocked efforts to restore a full seven days of early voting in the state, marking a win for the Republican-controlled legislature that enacted the new voting restrictions.

The Supreme Court's order offered no opinion or explanation, but Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer would have ruled differently. The ruling removes the first week of Ohio's 35-day early voting period. Those first seven days are the only time same-day registration is permitted in Ohio - a process most often used by people of color.

The order, issued on Monday, comes less than a full week after the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that voters could begin casting ballots as early as today. In making its ruling, the Sixth Circuit noted that a shortened early voting period would have a�disproportionate impact on low-income and African American voters throughout the state. The ruling prompted the state to file an emergency application with the Supreme Court, arguing that "all told, Ohio offers more early voting options than 41 other states and the District of Columbia."

This weekend, the NAACP and the ACLU requested that the Supreme Court not get involved in the Ohio case. The groups said the appeals court decision, "merely preserves the same early voting opportunities that have been in place for the last four general elections," and cited the confusion the high court's involvement would cause in the immediate election cycle.

According to SCOTUSBlog, Ohio's expansion of early voting was adopted by the state legislature following questionable and widespread poll delays in the 2004 general election. However, the state argued that the appeals court was using a now outdated method to measure whether Ohio provided an "equal opportunity to vote," explicitly referencing the Supreme Court's overhaul of a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, meant to defend against targeted voter disenfranchisement.

Commenting on the Supreme Court order, Nan Aron, the President of the Alliance for Justice, said, "Let's cut to the chase. The changes Ohio is implementing have one purpose and one purpose only: to make it harder for minorities and poor people to vote. The Sixth Circuit saw through this sham. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court majority has chosen to weigh in on the side of voter suppression."


9/29/2014 - Hope for Afghan Women as New President is Sworn In

Ashraf Ghani, who has publicly and consistently stated his support for women's rights and women's participation in government, was sworn in as the new President of Afghanistan today at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.

Over 1000 national and international guests attended the ceremony, including high-ranking officials from the United Nations and 34 countries and a delegation from the United States. Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai participated in the ceremony, marking the first democratic transition of presidential power in Afghan history.

"We should look toward the future with hope," said Ghani during his first speech as president. "Social justice is the foundation of long-standing peace. Any peace that is preserved with injustice does not stay."

In his speech, President Ghani promised increased development, security, and government reform, including of the judiciary. Only last week, President Ghani told the country that he wanted to ensure that women were represented on the Supreme Court and at the highest levels of government.

Given the new president's stated commitment to women, the mood among some Afghans is hopeful that the new administration will support the gains made by Afghan women since 2001 and encourage more progress for women's advancement. "During his campaign and even after he was elected, [President Ghani] has said and done all the right things," Manizha Naderi, activist and director of Women for Afghan Women, told The Guardian. "He has taken the women's vote seriously."

Women are also buoyed by President Ghani's wife, First Lady Rula Ghani. A Lebanese-American, Rula, who met Ghani when they were students at the American University in Beirut. In a public display of respect and affection unusual for Afghanistan, President Ghani thanked her during his inaugural address for her continuous support, calling her "Bibi Gul," a term of endearment. Rula, who is also a Christian, campaigned with her husband and has been a much more public figure than Hamid Karzai's wife. She has indicated that she will play an active role on behalf of women and children during Ghani's presidency.

"This will be a first for Afghanistan that the first lady is seen in public and this can have a very positive effect on women," said Shukria Barakzai, a women's rights advocate and member of Afghan parliament. "This is a male dominated society and a strong woman like her in the palace will make a huge difference." She continued, "As an Afghan woman, I will be thrilled to see this great woman standing with our new president and advocate for women."

The election of Ashraf Ghani was announced after Ghani and Abdullah concluded a power-sharing agreement that created a national unity government with Abdullah as the country's new chief executive. At the presidential inauguration, Abdullah emphasized that "today we are working as one united team for a better Afghanistan."


9/29/2014 - Civil Rights Lawsuit for Transgender Workers Is First of its Kind

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has brought two lawsuits on behalf of transgender workers. They mark the first time the federal government has sued to protect transgender rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Complaints against two companies were filed Thursday in federal courts in Florida and Michigan. The EEOC in both cases is asking for restitution for the fired transgender employees and for punitive damages for any future discrimination against employees.

One of the complaints alleges that Detriot-based company R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. discriminated against Amiee Stephens, a funeral director and embalmer, because she is transgender. According to the EEOC, "Amiee Stephens had been employed by Harris as a Funeral Director/Embalmer since October 2007 and had always adequately performed the duties of that position. In 2013, she gave Harris a letter explaining she was undergoing a gender transition from male to female, and would soon start to present (e.g., dress) in appropriate business attire at work, consistent with her gender identity as a woman. Two weeks later, Harris's owner fired Stephens, telling her that what she was 'proposing to do' was unacceptable."

In a second complaint, the EEOC alleges Florida-based Lakeland Eye Clinic violated Title VII by firing Brandi Branson for being transgender. The second case sounds similar to the first. The EEOC states that "after [Branson] began to present as a woman and informed the clinic she was transgender, Lakeland fired her."

These two complaints mark the first time the EEOC has used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to challenge gender-identity discrimination. The EEOC in December of 2012 adopted a plan that includes covering LGBT rights under Title VII's sex-discrimination provisions.

In July, President Obama signed an executive order protecting federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. At the signing ceremony, President Obama remarked, "It doesn't make much sense, but today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness that they could lose their job, not because of anything they do or fail to do, but because of who they are -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And that's wrong. We're here to do what we can to make it right -- to bend that arc of justice just a little bit in a better direction."


9/29/2014 - Advocates and Legislators Say NFL Corrections Go Wide But Not Deep Enough

Women's rights activists and anti-violence advocates are continuing to put pressure on the National Football League (NFL), calling for a more inclusive and robust institutional response to domestic violence and sexual assault as well as an independent investigation into the League.

This summer, NFL executive leadership came under fire after the League failed to take action when video evidence of Ravens' running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee surfaced. Earlier this month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the steps the League has taken to address its conduct. In forming a new advisory board, calling for a policy review, and appointing expert advocates to lead their program changes, Roger Goodell pointed to the League's intent to change, and admitted his own complicity in being slow to act. "I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I'm sorry for that," Goodell said.

Goodell has also called on FBI Director Robert Mueller to conduct an "independent" investigation of the League's process in reviewing Ray Rice's conduct. "I promise you that any shortcomings he finds in how we dealt with the situation will lead to swift action," Goodell said. The Commissioner maintained the League is taking these issues seriously, even announcing a new long-term partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

But problems remain.

Terry O'Neill, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) commented that the appointment of Mueller to conduct an investigation was "window dressing." The choice of Mueller, a partner at the law firm WilmerHale - which represents the League itself - has called into question whether the investigation is truly "independent," and some have said that the conflict of interest has already compromised the investigation.

O'Neill also called for a broader investigation into the League, not one focused solely on Ray Rice. "Glaringly absent from Mr. Goodell's remarks is a commitment to conduct an independent investigation into all of the incidents of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking on his watch," said O'Neill. "Such an investigation would, at minimum, ask how many victims reached out to NFL leadership for help over the years? What was the response? What services did the victims request? Did they receive them? If not, why not? Were the victims satisfied? What steps does the NFL take, as part of its response protocol, to keep the victims safe? What are its metrics of success - how does it measure whether the victim is safe? What about the victim's economic security? What measures does the NFL take to ensure the victim's economic security?"

The absence of a real independent investigation, is only one issue with the NFL response. While acknowledging that the creation of an advisory board on to lead NFL reforms is a positive step, O'Neill also points out that the NFL has already demonstrated blatant policy violations that have gone unacknowledged by the League's leadership. As one example, O'Neill explained, "Days after announcing his new domestic violence policy, Goodell said Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers, who is facing a felony domestic violence charge, could play in the team's season opener against the Dallas Cowboys."

'The NFL has lost its way," remarked O'Neill. "It doesn't have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem." She continued, "The only workable solution is for Roger Goodell to resign."

The advisory board has also drawn criticism from the Black Women's Roundtable for not including any women of color. The NFL has offered a meeting between the Black Women's Roundtable and two NFL executives, Anna Isaacson, the newly appointed Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility, and Troy Vincent, who has served as head of player engagement for the NFL and Executive Vice President of Football Operations. Melanie Campbell, Convener of the Black Women's Roundtable said the group will accept the offer, but the meeting is only preliminary.

At a press conference during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference last week, Karma Cottman, the Executive Director of the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a Roundtable member, stressed that the group isn't simply calling for women of color representation among the NFL's advisory board for the sake of inclusion, but because of the knowledge gap a more diverse group would fill. "The NFL's advisory team must include Black women with a demonstrated expertise in the development and implementation of culturally specific services, policies, and programs addressing domestic violence and sexual assault in the Black community," Cottman said.

Meanwhile, the NFL has gotten the attention of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) who introduced legislation to create $100 million in funding for domestic violence prevention programs - paid for by closing a tax loophole used by the NFL and other professional sports leagues. According to the senator's office, there are 10 professional sports leagues that enjoy tax-exempt status, including the National Football League, National Hockey League, Professional Golf Association and US Tennis Association. Many have held this nonprofit status since the 1960s.

Media Resources: Boston Globe 9/25/14; Black Women's Roundtable 9/24/14; National Organization for Women 9/19/14, 9/11/14, 9/9/14; National Football League 9/19/14, 9/15/14; Feminist Newswire 9/18/14; Feminist Majority Foundation Blog 9/17/14; Senator Cory Booker 9/16/14; NBC Sports 9/14/14; Library of Congress


9/26/2014 - Michigan Lawmakers Push for Insurance Plans to Offer Abortion Coverage Options

Michigan state legislators are introducing a new bill that would require private health insurance companies to make "abortion riders" available to health care seekers.

The proposal is a far cry from reproductive justice advocates' persistent call for integrated health coverage that includes coverage for comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion services. Last December, the Michigan state legislature approved a measure prohibiting insurance companies from offering abortion coverage in both public and private health plans, even in cases of rape or when a women's health is endangered. The measure requires employers and individuals who want coverage of abortion to purchase a rider to supplement their insurance policy.

State Representative Pam Faris (D), State Senator Rebekah Warren (D) and State Representative Sarah Roberts (D) introduced the new compromise bill. Their bill would require every insurance plan to offer the rider.

"I still oppose this law and would like to see it repealed," Faris said Wednesday when she was introducing the bill. "But we never told insurance companies that they had to sell it."

Only 7 of 42 health insurance plans in the state of Michigan offer extra coverage for abortion services. Furthermore, these plans are offered to employers, not individual coverage seekers.

"This sexist and discriminatory law requires women to buy an extra insurance policy just to have comprehensive reproductive health care coverage, but does not require this separate policy to actually be sold," Senator Warren said. "As a result, the majority of women in Michigan cannot get full coverage. That's why we're introducing legislation to require any company that offers health insurance to make this extra rider available."


The state of Michigan is one of at least 24 states that ban most coverage for safe and legal abortion care. In June, two Michigan lawmakers introduced legislation to repeal the insurance restriction, but such an attempt isn't expected to be successful in the current legislature.


9/26/2014 - States Refusing to Expand Medicaid Face Increased Costs and Larger Uninsured Populations

According to new data, seven of the 11 major metropolitan areas with rates of uninsured people higher than the national average are in states that have rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

According to the US Census Bureau's Community Survey - the nation's most comprehensive data source on American households examining state and local poverty, income, and health insurance statistics - 13 states saw a statistically significant increase in the amount of residents covered by health insurance between 2012 and 2013. Among the top 25 largest US cities, however, 11 have rates of uninsured individuals that beat the national average across all metro areas. Seven of those metropolitan areas are in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas - states where GOP-controlled legislatures have resisted Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Miami is now the city with the highest percentage of uninsured people in America, topping the charts at 25 percent, although it wasn't the only Florida city to exceed the national average. Texas, home to three of the eleven cities with irregularly high uninsured populations, also has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the nation. In Georgia, where close to 20 percent of Atlanta's residents are uninsured, lawmakers are prohibited from even advocating for Medicaid expansion. In North Carolina, over 15 percent of Charlotte's population is uninsured. This summer, Republican Mayor Adam O'Neal of Belhaven, NC, marched to the US Capitol on foot for 15 days to protest the forced closure of a rural hospital resulting from Governor Pat McCroy's refusal to expand Medicaid.

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Prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Medicaid enrollment was only open to pregnant women, children under 8, adults with dependent children, the elderly, the differently-abled, and the blind. Throughout its history, a majority of Medicaid's beneficiaries have been women. Under the ACA, states now have the power to expand Medicaid eligibility to include all Americans with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level. Medicaid expansion increases access to insurance, and as a result, lowers health care costs. A new report issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services projects that the ACA will save hospitals $5.7 billion this year. The majority of those savings - close to 75 percent - will be in states that have expanded Medicaid.

An earlier study by the George Washington University published in May found that 2.9 million patients utilizing community health centers in states where Medicaid was expanded had obtained health insurance in 2014. Community health centers receive federal funding to operate in under-served and typically poorer communities, although some have already been forced to close due to lack of funding and the rest risk losing $569 million in revenues if their states do not expand Medicaid eligibility. The same study found that over 1 million low-income Americans were struggling to access affordable health insurance specifically because of their state's failure to expand.

27 states and Washington, DC have already expanded Medicaid, leading to an over 15 percent enrollment in the program in those states. There is no deadline for states to opt in to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, and eligible individuals can enroll at any time.


9/25/2014 - New Legislation Would Improve Access to Emergency Contraception for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced legislation this week to make emergency contraception more widely available to survivors of sexual assault.

The Emergency Contraception Access and Education Act of 2014, co-sponsored by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), would require hospitals that receive federal funding - including Catholic hospitals - to tell sexual assault survivors who go to the emergency room that emergency contraception (EC) is available to them and to provide EC to survivors regardless of their ability to pay.

Murray has introduced a similar bill every year for more than a decade. In that period of time, EC became more accessible when the FDA approved Plan B One-Step to be sold over the counter to all ages. But, despite some improvements in access to EC, Murray says that there are still far too many women and girls who either do not know about the drug or who don't know how properly to use it, including one in four teenagers who do not know that EC exists as an option.

"Emergency contraception is a safe, responsible and effective means of preventing unintended pregnancies - a goal we all should share," said Senator Murray. Unfortunately, in spite of its increased availability, emergency contraception remains an underused prevention method in the United States, especially for survivors of sexual assault." It is estimated that between 25,000 and 32,000 women in the US become pregnant as a cause of rape every year in the United States.

Currently only 17 states and the District of Columbia require that emergency rooms offer information on EC to rape survivors, and only 13 states and the District of Columbia require emergency rooms to offer EC on request by the survivor. To amplify the need for federal legislation on this issue, advocates launched a twitterstorm on Tuesday using the hashtag #ECinER.

In addition to improving access for survivors, the bill would also direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to create a campaign to educate the public about EC and to distribute information on EC to pharmacists and other health care providers.


9/25/2014 - CVS Will Refund 11,000 Customers Illegally Charged for Birth Control

CVS has promised to refund around 11,000 women who were illegally charged copays for birth control after Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) alerted the chain that they were acting in violation of the Affordable Care Act.

Speier, a ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care, and Entitlements, sent a letter to Larry Merlo, CEO of CVS Health earlier this month after she discovered that the pharmacy was erroneously charging women copays for birth control. After receiving her letter, CVS informed the Congresswoman that the illegal charges were a result of a coding error.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), health insurance plans, must cover contraceptives at no additional, out-of-pocket cost to consumers. This birth control benefit is a part of an ACA provision that guarantees coverage of preventative health services and screenings, like pap smears or annual check-ups, without cost-sharing.

In a letter to Speier, CVS Health officials said the problem would be fixed by September 26. CVS also indicated that store pharmacists have "been empowered" to take action if any future coding errors occur. On Monday, Speier also encouraged the chain to ensure "pharmacists know the core tenets of the Affordable Care Act to provide effective and legal customer service." CVS said it will fully reimburse affected customers by October 1.

The Congresswoman's office has received numerous complaints against other retail pharmacists like Walgreen's and Target. Speier has recommended that these outlets also provide training to their pharmacy staff to ensure they know how to "apply the basic principles of the Affordable Care Act" to avoid illegal charges.

Two-thirds of American woman now have access to free birth control, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. According to a recent study, the number of users who paid nothing out-of-pocket for oral contraceptives has more than quadrupled since the ACA birth control benefit was implemented. Gaps in coverage, however, remain. The National Women's Law Center has set up a hotline and online information center for women who are still paying out-of-pocket for contraceptive coverage or who are having difficulty accessing benefits.


9/24/2014 - Largest-Ever Global Study of Gender in Film Illuminates a Persistent Sexism Problem

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) convened its second annual Global Symposium on Gender in Media Tuesday, issuing the full results of its inaugural study of female depictions in global popular film. The results illuminated a persistent problem with the amount of women in film and how they're depicted.

Geena Davis opened the Symposium at the United States Institute for Peace with a brief keynote address and a few startling statistics before diving into In her address, she pointed out that the US has only achieved 20 percent female representation in Congress and that women also make up only 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 corporate board seats. Behind the big screen, female representation hovers around 17 percent. Now, Davis has challenged her Hollywood peers to consider this: on average, females make up only 17 percent of crowd scenes in popular films, evidencing an alarming mirror-reflection of life and art, specifically, in professional spaces, and a literal practice of writing women out.

"For every one female speaker, there are three male speakers," Davis said. Of those characters, few have jobs or hold a leadership position. In many cases, based on a predetermined set of criteria, female speaking characters are hypersexualized, heavily stereotyped, and function as "eye candy." Davis said the media we consume not only inform our worldview, but help shape what we think of as normal manifestations of gender representation, adding that the more hours of television a child watches, the more devastating the outcomes. For male children, more television viewing corresponds to more sexist views. For the average female child, the more hours watched, the lower her self esteem.

"We're enculturating another generation to accept that women aren't as important as men," Davis said.

The Institute's founder said the data never fails to shock her Hollywood peers, who largely haven't noticed the dearth of female representation - even at the level of crowd shots. "At this rate," Davis remarked, "we will achieve parity (on screen) in 700 years."

The GDIGM study, called "Gender Bias Without Borders," is the group's first study of global gender depictions in film and perhaps the largest ever conducted. The data evaluated 120 top grossing films in 11 of the largest box office territories in the world that were theatrically released between January 1, 2010 and May 1, 2013. The study was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nations Office on Women, and the University of Southern California. Dr. Stacy Smith, Associate Professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the films had to be of native origin and characters studied only needed to speak one or more words, or be a named character, to be evaluated. The research team teased out extensive demographic information about each character to build a comprehensive picture about the stereotypes being built.

The study covered Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the US, with another US-UK sample created because of frequent, successful studio collaborations between the two countries.

"No one is doing well," Dr. Smith said. In every region, results were grim, although the United States consistently ranked as one of the worst offenders with consistently oversimplified or negligible female characterizations. Of 5,799 speaking or named characters in US films, roughly 30 percent were female. That number dropped to 23 percent when evaluating main characters. In the US, the percentage of gender-balanced casts was totally non-existent.

While women made up about 23 percent of the "workforce" in the films studied, they comprise nearly half of the actual US labor market. However, the numbers grew worse when "clout-based positions" were controlled. Of female political leaders represented on film, only 12 women were depicted as the heads of local, state/provincial, or national government authority as opposed to 115 male depictions. Of the 12 characters studied, only one represented the equivalent of highest authority - but she had no speaking role.

Of all the countries studied, movies produced in China distinguished themselves as above-average performers in representing women equitably on film. But, according to Davis, roughly 80 percent of all film consumption in the entire world is still produced by the United States. "We're exporting these negative images of women and girls," she said.

Dr. Smith pointed to the silver lining in the research. When women write and direct, a film is more likely to have more female representation on screen. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the more money that pours into a project, the more women are pushed out, Smith said. She used the "Twilight" franchise as an example of this aberrant phenomenon, but representatives from the world of independent cinema encouraged the difference women can make pursuing alternative routes of distribution. Participating filmmakers also encouraged the crowd to support women filmmakers and writers.

Geena Davis emphasized the will of women to change what films look like. "The change has to happen now, and it has to be dramatic."