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Murder Charges Dismissed in Mississippi Stillbirth Case

RH Reality Check - Fri, 04/04/2014 - 13:43

On Thursday, a Mississippi judge dismissed the murder charge against Rennie Gibbs, the young woman who faced life in prison after she delivered a stillborn baby.

Gibbs, now 24, was 36 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to an area emergency room and diagnosed with “fetal demise.” Doctors induced labor and Gibbs delivered a stillborn daughter she named Samiya. Medical examiner Steven Hayne concluded the cause of death of Gibbs’ daughter was “cocaine toxicity,” based on autopsy reports that showed trace amounts of cocaine byproduct in the baby’s system. No cocaine was found in the infant’s blood, however. Based on the presence of those trace amounts of cocaine byproduct, the medical examiner declared the baby’s death a homicide. A Lowndes County grand jury indicted Gibbs for “depraved heart murder,” defined as an act “eminently dangerous to others … regardless of human life.” The grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy. Gibbs, then 16, faced life in prison.

Experts who later examined the autopsy reports of Gibbs’ daughter disagreed with the conclusion that “cocaine toxicity” was the likely cause of the infant’s death. It was far more likely, they concluded, that the cause of death was the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. But prosecutors pressed on, arguing that they had an obligation to prosecute Gibbs because the state has an obligation to protect children from their parents, and failing to do so sends a message that “every drug addict who robs or steals to obtain money for drugs should not be held accountable for their actions because of their addiction.”

The Mississippi court hearing Gibbs’ case was not so sure. Relying on the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court in Buckhalter v. State, a decision that upheld the dismissal of a manslaughter indictment in a case similar to Gibbs’, Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens said the law was “unclear” on how to treat these cases. “Gibbs was indicted prior to Buckhalter and the law was unclear in Mississippi as to the appropriate charge, if any, to be levied when a pregnant woman allegedly consumed illegal drugs and allegedly caused the death of her unborn child,” said Kitchens’ ruling.

Gibbs’ prosecution reflects a troubling increase in prosecutors charging women with crimes related to pregnancy outcomes. As documented by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, there were a total of 413 documented cases between 1973 and 2005 where women faced criminal charges related to her pregnancy and outcome. Since 2005, that number has skyrocketed with 200 additional documented cases of prosecutors criminally charging women under so-called fetal harm laws. Those prosecuted were disproportionately low-income women and women of color.

“The biggest threats to life-born and unborn do not come from their mommies—but rather poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, and environmental hazards,” NAPW executive director and co-counsel for Gibbs, Lynn Paltrow, told RH Reality Check. “Prosecutions like these increase risks to babies by frightening pregnant women away from care and by using tax dollars to expand the criminal justice system rather than to fund Nurse-Family partnerships that actually protect the health of the children.”

The judge dismissed the charge against Gibbs “without prejudice,” which means prosecutors have the discretion to refile charges against her. According to reports, Assistant District Attorney Mark Jackson said that the state would reconvene a grand jury at the end of July to try and re-indict Gibbs, this time for manslaughter.

Robert McDuff, Gibbs’ lead attorney, told RH Reality Check, “We are pleased the murder charge was dismissed. We will have further discussions in the coming weeks with the district attorney’s office in an effort to persuade them not to indict Rennie for manslaughter or any other crime. In our view, neither the law nor the evidence justify prosecuting this young woman, who was a teenager at the time, and we hope this is the end of it. But if further charges are brought, we will return to court in her defense.”

Image: Trial via Shutterstock

The post Murder Charges Dismissed in Mississippi Stillbirth Case appeared first on RH Reality Check.

"I know that reproductive freedom is the heart of gender equality," says our pre...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Fri, 04/04/2014 - 10:55
"I know that reproductive freedom is the heart of gender equality," says our president, Ilyse Hogue. Check out her piece on what "choice" means to her, and let us know your thoughts.

Double Booked: Expanding the Meaning of Choice
I remember clearly the day that my then-boyfriend now-husband and I implemented our “no conference calls on road trips” rule. We’re often on the road between our home in DC and New York or to my mother-in-law’s home on the Delaware coast. While this might seem like an obvious rule to some in order t...

Bobby Jindal's "America Next" health-care plan should really be called "America...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 20:25
Bobby Jindal's "America Next" health-care plan should really be called "America Last." Here's the truth about how it stacks up for women and families. Learn more -->

Planned Parenthood Announces Plan to Build New Surgery Center in Texas

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 16:27

Planned Parenthood South Texas has announced plans to build a new $5 million ambulatory surgical center in San Antonio, in anticipation of the enactment of the final provision of Texas’ new omnibus anti-abortion law that mandates all abortion procedures—both surgical and medication abortions—be performed or administered in these hospital-like facilities.

Currently, Texas has six licensed abortion-providing ambulatory surgical centers and 19 abortion clinics. After September 1, if a new lawsuit does not succeed in persuading a federal court to block the enforcement of the new law, it will become illegal for doctors to provide abortion care in a clinical setting.

But the president of Planned Parenthood South Texas (PPST) said abortion will be just one part of the spectrum of care provided at the new facility.

“The new facility will be about so much more than abortion—this health center will still primarily be a place where life-changing, life-saving preventive health care is done,” said PPST president Jeffrey Hons. At the surgical center, both male and female patients will be able to access treatment and diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections, cancer screenings, annual exams, contraception, and pregnancy testing in addition to other reproductive health services and counseling.

The number of legal abortion providers in Texas declined steadily over the past four years, as conservative lawmakers have passed increasingly stringent restrictions on abortion care in the state, from requiring mandatory ultrasounds to requiring that abortion-providing doctors have hospital admitting privileges. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Texas had 62 abortion providers in 2011; as of March 2014, it had just 24.

Even after the construction of the new Planned Parenthood facility, there will be no ambulatory surgical centers located west or south of San Antonio, or east of Houston, at which Texans can access legal abortion care. Legal abortions will be available only in the state’s larger cities—Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio—forcing Texans in other parts of the state either to drive hundreds of miles round trip for procedures, to carry their pregnancies to term, or to attempt to end their pregnancies on their own.

Abortion providers say that the high cost of constructing new ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), or retrofitting existing clinics, prevents most facilities from being able to come into compliance with the new law.

“By the estimates I have been given, an ASC costs upwards of $450 to $500 per square foot to build. That is at least $2 million to $3 million for a 5,000-square-foot facility,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider and plaintiff in the latest lawsuit challenging Texas’ ASC regulations, in a media conference call on Wednesday.

While conservative lawmakers have said that the ASC requirements are meant to increase patient safety, Texas’ Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst tweeted last year that the intent of the law was to shutter as many facilities as possible.

Hagstrom Miller said that she is unwilling to “use precious funds needed for direct service care to women in unnecessary construction projects,” in light of the overall safety of abortion. And she said she has no reason to believe that yet more onerous restrictions on legal abortion are coming, despite the fact that abortion providers in Texas “undertake heroic acts to comply and comply and comply” with new regulations.

“The consequences of these onerous requirements are an injustice,” said Hagstrom Miller, “not only to our clinics and the women we serve, but to the community.”

Image: San Antonio via Shutterstock

The post Planned Parenthood Announces Plan to Build New Surgery Center in Texas appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Sen. Ted Cruz asked people if their lives were better before or after the Afford...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 16:00
Sen. Ted Cruz asked people if their lives were better before or after the Affordable Care Act. The response probably wasn't what he expected...

Ted Cruz Facebook poll on Obamacare doesn’t go according to plan
This is what it looks like when a pointless and unscientific social media poll backfires

You'll love the reasons gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer picked Lisa Brown a...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 14:51
You'll love the reasons gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer picked Lisa Brown as his running mate.

Mark Schauer introduces running mate: 'Lisa Brown is a fighter and she knows how to lead'
"She raised her voice to speak up for women, for all of us. And when Republicans tried to stop her, she never backed down."

Two Major Cities Make Condoms More Easily Available to Young People

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 14:34

As RH Reality Check has reported in the past, condom availability programs have been credited with increasing the likelihood that sexually active teens use this important pregnancy- and disease-prevention method without increasing the likelihood that teens become sexually active. Though some adults are still wary of giving teens access to condoms or other forms of contraception, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released an opinion saying that easy access to condoms is essential for teens, that communities should work to make condoms available in places where teens frequent, and that schools are a good place for condom availability programs. Two big cities—Chicago and Philadelphia—are following this advice by expanding and advertising programs that allow teens to get condoms at school and even at home.

At the start of this school year in September, the Chicago school district worked closely with the city’s health department to make condoms available at two public high schools. The program was part of a citywide initiative aimed at reducing teen pregnancy and birth rates which, though dropping, are higher than the national average. In fact, Chicago’s teen birth rate of 57 births to 1,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 is just over one-and-a-half times the national average (34 per 1,000) and more than twice that of New York City (23.6 per 1,000). The initiative, which is funded by a five-year, $20 million federal grant, also includes controversial ads featuring “pregnant” teenage boys (see Elizabeth Schroeder’s commentary for RH Reality Check) and age-appropriate sexuality education starting in kindergarten, which is set to be implemented in 2016. Previously, sex education did not start until fifth grade.

City officials recently announced that they will expand the condom availability program to at least 24 high schools in the district for the 2014–15 school year. Though they expect some parents will be upset by the program, officials say it is necessary. Alderman Latasha Thomas, chairman of the city council’s education committee, told the Sun Times, “Some parents are gonna have problems with it—absolutely. I understand it. My kids are grown now. But, I remember those teenaged years. But, the reality is they’re having sexual intercourse and the stats say [35 percent] of the people who are having sexual intercourse in high school aren’t using any protection. None. They still have a process where they teach them to abstain. But, at the end of the day, they have to deal with the reality.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed these sentiments at an unrelated news conference, saying, “It’s an acknowledgement of what’s happening, whether you did that or not. It’s … an attempt to deal, from a health-care perspective, [with] both pregnancy as well as socially-transmitted diseases. I respect it as a pilot. But, I want everybody to understand that doesn’t mean you’re absolved—either as a parent or an adult—to talk to an adolescent about responsible behavior, respecting who you’re with and doing what’s right, not what’s convenient.”

A condom availability campaign in Philadelphia is reaching students even closer to home—their mailbox. Run by the city’s health department, Take Control Philly, launched in 2011 in an effort to bring down rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people in the city. Philadelphians between the ages of 13 and 19 are eligible to receive free condoms by mail. In addition to the mail-order service, the department also makes condoms available at 180 sites across the city and at events throughout the year. The department has distributed 7.5 million condoms since the campaign launched.

To increase its reach, the campaign uses social media sites like Facebook. For example, in February, it ran a series of ads featuring the “worst Valentine’s ever” such as one from a genital wart saying “I’m stuck on you.” Matt Prior, who runs the campaign for the health department, told News Works that these kind of ads are very popular and consistently lead to a spike in mail-order condom requests: “So in three steps from seeing an ad or seeing a post, they can hit three buttons, enter some information, and they’re getting condoms in their hands. We mailed over 150,000 condoms that way.” He also credited the Facebook ads with increasing from 30 percent to 38 percent the percentage of mail orders that come from young women.

The department believes that making condoms available to teens is working. It claims that internal numbers show a 10 to 20 percent decrease in the case of chlamydia and gonorrhea among young people since the campaign began in 2011.

Condoms are highly effective at preventing pregnancy and remain the only method of contraception that also protects against sexually transmitted infections. Given the success of condom availability programs in increasing the use of this method without increasing rates of sexual behavior, we can only hope that more cities and towns across the country follow the example set by Chicago and Philadelphia.

Image: Condoms via Shutterstock

The post Two Major Cities Make Condoms More Easily Available to Young People appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Love this from pro-choice Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox! He's a Republican, but h...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 12:40
Love this from pro-choice Oklahoma state Rep. Doug Cox! He's a Republican, but he isn't afraid to stand up to members of his party who are pushing dangerous anti-choice bills -->

Alabama Extends Waiting Period for Abortion, Advances Other Anti-Choice Bills

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 12:39

On Wednesday, the Alabama state legislature gave final approval to a bill that would extend the waiting period for having an abortion from 24 to 48 hours, as three other anti-choice bills, which passed out of the state senate health committee on Tuesday, could see a senate floor vote before close of session Thursday.

The waiting period bill, HB 489, passed on a 24-10 vote and now heads to the governor for review.

“The passage of this bill shows that many state legislators believe that women of Alabama are incapable of making their own reproductive decisions,” Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that the vast majority of women who come into a clinic seeking an abortion have already made up their minds and are not swayed by state-mandated attempts to make them reconsider.

The three other bills that passed the health committee on Tuesday all passed on a 7-1 vote, with the only nay vote coming from the only woman on the committee, Linda Coleman (D-Jefferson).

Those three bills would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected; make it more difficult for minors to obtain an abortion, with or without parental permission; and require women with doomed pregnancies to hear about the option to use perinatal hospice services rather than terminate the pregnancy. Such hospice services do not currently exist in the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) told the Associated Press that he expects only the bill dealing with minors seeking abortions to have a senate floor vote on Thursday, and called it a priority for the senate’s Republican caucus.

Watson of the ACLU told RH Reality Check that this bill “would just make it practically impossible to get an abortion if [a minor] had to go through the judicial bypass service.” The minor would have to prove her maturity, without using her ability to navigate the court system as evidence, and prove that she has been counseled on alternatives to abortion. She would also risk running into people she knows at the courthouse if she lives in a small county, because she must go to the courthouse in the county in which she lives. All of that is if the minor wants to avoid telling her parents; if a parent is supportive, however, they have to provide a certified birth certificate proving they are in fact the child’s parent. “Well, that takes time to get a certified birth certificate!” Watson said. “You have to fill out the paperwork, go to the county the child was born in, and get it from there. That is just an added barrier.”

If the “heartbeat” ban were to pass, Watson said, it would end up costing the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, if not more, because the bill would be challenged immediately in court for unconstitutionally banning almost all abortions. That’s money the state can’t afford, she said, given that it hasn’t given teachers a raise in six years and has its prisons filled to double capacity.

And the perinatal hospice bill, Watson said, is callous because it burdens women, both emotionally and practically (it also requires a 48-hour waiting period), who have gone “from planning a nursery to planning a funeral. She has to be reminded of that every time the baby moves, or doesn’t. It’s one of the cruelest things I have ever seen.”

The best hope for keeping any of the three remaining bills from passing, Watson said, is to keep them off of the senate floor. Once they come up for a vote, she said, they will almost certainly pass, and the governor will almost certainly sign them. 

“It’s not just a Republican supermajority [in the legislature], it’s a Tea Party supermajority,” Watson said. “And they just plow through and do all sorts of things. That’s why we’re in federal court right now over the TRAP [targeted regulation of abortion providers] lawsuit.” A trial was ordered Monday, and a May 19 trial date announced Wednesday, in that case, which challenges the constitutionality of new laws that threaten to shutter three-fifths of the state’s abortion clinics.

Image: Gavel time via Shutterstock

The post Alabama Extends Waiting Period for Abortion, Advances Other Anti-Choice Bills appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Trial Date Set in Case Challenging Alabama Admitting Privileges Law

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 11:20

On Wednesday, a federal judge set a May 19 trial date in a case challenging the constitutionality of an Alabama law that requires doctors who perform abortions in the state to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The trial date was announced two days after U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson refused to grant requests by both sides to rule in their favor without a trial, and as a temporary restraining order blocking the law from taking effect was set to expire. With the trial date set, Judge Thompson also extended that temporary restraining order to keep the law from taking effect until a final judgment is issued in the case.

The non-jury trial will address what the court identified as significant factual disputes on the impact of the law—should it go into effect—between the reproductive rights organizations challenging the law and attorneys for the state defending it. The three clinics challenging the law, which perform approximately 40 percent of all abortions in the state, say that the law would result in only two clinics remaining open in the state. Attorneys for the state argue those claims are hypothetical and overstated, and the only way to assess the impact of the law is to let it take effect.

The challenge is one of several legal challenges to admitting privileges requirements passed in states run by anti-choice lawmakers. A federal appeals court blocked a similar law in Wisconsin from taking effect, and attorneys for the state have asked the Supreme Court to review that order. Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a similar Texas law. Meanwhile, the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments on the constitutionality of Mississippi’s admitting privileges requirement, which threatens to close the only clinic in the state. Arguments in that case will take place in New Orleans on April 28.

The post Trial Date Set in Case Challenging Alabama Admitting Privileges Law appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Successful Home Visit Program for Mothers and Infants Lacks Long-Term Funding

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 09:41

There’s little on which Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives agree, but questions and testimony delivered Wednesday in the vast and well-appointed hearing room of the Ways and Means Committee suggested that the value of little-heralded Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) may be one.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Services, under whose aegis the hearing took place, expressed his appreciation, as a former policeman, for the program, because of its intervention in preventing domestic violence and child abuse.

Still, the program is not fully funded, and only on Monday won a six-month extension of its funding, which was scheduled to expire last month. “I think we need a little more certainty than going from year to year, or six months to six months,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), the subcomittee’s ranking member. He then apologized for having to leave for a House Budget Committee mark-up of a resolution on the budget bill that resulted from the compromise eked out by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA), noting his concern over funding for social services.

(On Wednesday, a small group of right-wing Republicans were threatening to vote against the budget deal, because of objections to the procedure by which the measure—known colloquially as the Medicare “doc fix,” which also included the MIECHV extension—was passed. The mark-up passed in committee on Wednesday night.)

MIECHV, which was enacted in 2007 under the Bush administration, does not reach every state, despite early evidence that the program improves the lives of low-income children and often reduces parents’ reliance on public assistance programs. The evidence-based program, which relies on visits by nursing and mental health professionals to the homes of low-income mothers, was expanded in late 2013 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), via the Affordable Care Act (ACA), by the relatively modest sum of $69 million in grants to 13 states.

The gist of the MIECHV program is to fund home-visit programs whose models have proven to have positive outcomes in reducing child neglect and abuse, and in showing low-income families to thrive as a result of the program’s intervention.

Highlighted at the hearing were two programs that receive MIECHV funding, Child First of Connecticut, which specializes in mental health interventions, and the Nurse-Family Partnership, a multi-state program centered on an intensive visitation schedule by nurses to the homes of low-income mothers, beginning in pregnancy and ending when the child reaches 2 years old. Nurses come to the home every other week for two-hour visits, in which they advise their clients on everything from nutrition to breastfeeding to infant behavior and other issues in the women’s lives, but also take copious amounts of data in each visit that measure the family’s wellbeing and the challenges they face.

Crystal Towne, a nurse home-visitor from Yakima Memorial Hospital in Washington State, appeared as a witness at the hearing, together with one of her clients, Sherene Sucilla.

Sucilla spoke of how she grew up in foster care, beginning at the age of 12, and ending with her 18th birthday, when she was suddenly on her own. “In those six years, I attended seven different schools,” she said. Nonetheless, she managed to graduate high school, and to do so on time.

But when she found herself pregnant, Sucilla said, she was at a loss. “When I was younger, my mom wasn’t really a mom,” she said. “I didn’t really have a role model for parenting, and I knew I didn’t want to be the mom that she was … I was really scared … and I was in this by myself.”

Towne explained that her first visit with Sucilla took place when the young woman was only 10 weeks pregnant, and the visits continued for the next two-and-a-half years as Sucilla began raising her son. While the relationship between the two included the practical matters of mothering—Sucilla noted how Towne got a lactation advocacy organization to send her a breast pump by overnight delivery when she was panicked over her baby’s difficulty at breastfeeding—it also fed Sucilla’s dreams of a better job and getting an education. (She moved from waitressing to bookkeeping, and is exploring educational opportunities.)

Darcy Lowell, a physician and founder of Child First in Connecticut, testified on the measured positive outcomes that her MIECHV-funded program has shown in reducing depression and family violence in the families her program serves. Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, testified that in a randomized controlled trial study with a sample of 157 in Bridgeport, a one-years follow-up “found 40-70 percent reductions” in “serious levels” of problems with child behavior and language development, and “mothers’ psychological distress.”

“At the three-year follow-up,” Baron’s written testimony reads, “the study found a 33 percent reduction in families’ involvement with child protective services (CPS) for possible maltreatment.”

Under questioning by members of Congress, Baron testified that the MIECHV program ultimately saves taxpayer dollars by helping families to become more self-reliant and avoid health risks and interventions by CPS. “It really does seem like you can have your cake and eat it, too,” he said of the program.

Rounding out the panel of witnesses was Rebecca Kilburn, senior economist with the RAND Corporation, a Washington think tank that conducts empirical studies, and is currently evaluating the MIECHV program for a report that will be released next year. While “the jury is still out on the MIECHV program, per se,” Kilburn said, preliminary findings are promising. But the success of any scaling-up of the program, she said, will depend on maintaining fidelity to the evidenced-based models offered by such organizations as Child First and the Nurse-Family Partnership.

Image: A.M. Stan

The post Successful Home Visit Program for Mothers and Infants Lacks Long-Term Funding appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Christian Colleges Have a Sexual Assault Problem

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 09:25

When Samantha Field was deciding where to go to college, she had precious few options. As a woman who had grown up in an independent fundamentalist Baptist household, it was unusual for her to go to college in the first place. She lived in Florida, a short drive from Pensacola Christian College. It seemed like the obvious choice—her family could afford it without loans (the school is unaccredited), and she liked the music faculty she had met on a summer program. And, she says, the notoriously strict honor code was actually more lax than the rules in her church. “It allowed knee-length skirts and sitting at the same table as boys, or next to a boy during church. Initially, I felt liberated,” she told me.

But by the time Field reached her junior and senior years, she had undergone numerous sexual assaults at the hands of her then-fiancé. When she broke off the relationship and was honest about the toxic abuse she had been a victim of, she found herself shunned by much of the student body, and she was disillusioned. She couldn’t transfer out of the school because her credits wouldn’t go anywhere due to the school’s lack of accreditation. She would have to start over if she left. So she stayed and endured. “It got so bad that I stopped going anywhere in public—I had a friend who was a [graduate assistant] and she had a kitchen, so I would get up, go to my classes, and then hide in her room for the rest of the day,” she told me. “Being around campus was agony.”

Field’s story is unfortunately not unusual in the world of fundamentalist Christian schools. Students attend because these schools advertise themselves as safe places, which is key to parental support. For many women, it is their first time out from under the rigid restrictions of their fundamentalist household—it allows them to feel like a normal American woman for once. Unfortunately, for many, this comes with the experience of being sexually assaulted by a boyfriend or a friend. And when this happens, many women find themselves rejected by their church and their school.

President Obama recently announced an initiative to curb rape on campuses across the United States. It is a well-known problem that rapes and sexual assaults that happen on campus are often handled in-house, without police interference. Often, there is little to no punishment for the rapists, and their victims are made to feel shame and guilt for reporting at all.

Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians often hold up these kinds of stories as examples of how “the world” is corrupt. Christian colleges bank on the idea that they are safer because they are a faith-based environment—the sexual sins of rape supposedly don’t happen on their campuses.

A number of recent revelations have proven this assertion wrong. From Bob Jones University to Pensacola to Cedarville to Patrick Henry to Hyles-Anderson College, Christian colleges are plagued by accusations at once familiar and strange: College counselors asking rape victims leading questions about their potential guilt, a lack of reporting to authorities, and failure to punish the rapist are all problems known to those who study incidences of rape at colleges and universities.

But in the Christian environment, the fundamentalist theology surrounding sexual activity and purity creates another layer of shame and guilt. A theology that positions the colleges as better and safer than their secular counterparts also creates an environment in which a person coming forward about rape risks being seen as “impure” and “broken.”

For example, Field recently reported that in 2003 another Pensacola Christian College student was attacked by her then-boyfriend, bound and gagged, and left in a construction site on campus after being raped. The student sought the help of a school counselor, but instead of receiving needed help and victim services, she was expelled for being a “fornicator.” She left campus while her injuries from the rape—a bruised face and a broken arm—were still healing. (The school’s president said in a recent statement that the school “has upheld the law, will continue to uphold the law, reports criminal acts when we are made knowledgeable of them, and fully cooperates with any investigation.” In response, Field wrote that she had heard directly from “a PCC staffer who was expressly forbidden—by three people in the administration—from reporting a child sexual assault to the police and [was] informed [by those three individuals] … that they would not make a report.” She says this “was confirmed by other staffers.” She acknowledges that it was not illegal, in 2011, for the school not to report the assault.)

The student’s expulsion and treatment by the college is directly tied to the perceived sin of having sex outside of marriage. It was apparently considered worse that she was now “impure” than that she had been raped. To her knowledge, her rapist was never confronted or punished, and went on to graduate.

Some students are attracted to campuses like PCC because of their strict honor code. Field tells me that students were required to sign an agreement to “obey to abide by the school’s restrictions and to acknowledge that PCC maintained the right to expel us at any point for any reason. It was also an agreement never to sue the school for anything.” The honor code, now referred to as “The Pathway,” contains such restrictions as what students can and cannot wear in the interest of modesty and purity, and explicitly states that any sex outside of a heterosexual marriage is “a perversion.”

Honor codes like PCC’s appear at Christian colleges around the United States. I attended a Christian liberal arts institution that had similar teachings on sex and purity, though we did not have to sign an honor code, and it was easier to get around the rules than at some places. Though PCC is often held up as an extreme example of legalism, the school is not nearly as much of an outlier as it is made to seem.

This theology about premarital sex creates a purity culture that is also a rape culture. The ways in which Christian colleges handle rape cases place this rape culture in harsh relief.

At Bob Jones University (BJU), students who report a sexual assault or rape are put through a ringer of questions about their sexual purity. The impression seems to be that if someone was already engaged in sexual sin, then rape is a kind of natural consequence to such behavior. Jeffrey Hoffman, a former student who is now the executive director of BJUnity, a group developed to support LGBT students and alumni from BJU, told me, “It’s a common assumption that people are sexually bad and have to be prevented from being sexually bad by living to strict rules. There is no talk about consent.”

The culture on campus, Hoffman says, operates within a system of tattling: “Spiritual leadership positions are generally given to those who rat out others for infractions of the rules, and the students face a lot of pressure to tattle on their friends.” This makes it hard to discuss problems with the way the administration handles a case of rape or sexual assault, or to seek outside help for such a case.

Similarly, as Kiera Feldman reported in the New Republic, the evangelical institution Patrick Henry College has experienced insularity when it comes to cases of rape and sexual assault. Cedarville University in Ohio, too, is currently undergoing a Title IX investigation in response to allegations that the school mishandled cases of rape that happened to students while on campus.

Stories of covering up and outright ignoring cases of sexual assault within religious institutions go back decades. In the 1980s, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) terminated the tenure of Donn Ketcham for having what was reportedly referred to in the ABWE community as an “affair” with a 14-year-old girl—but only after they made the girl sign a “confession” of how she “participated in a physical relationship with Dr. Donn Ketcham that transgressed God’s Word and that was not pleasing to Him.” In 2011, ABWE issued an apology for its actions, both in the 1980s and in the years since, pledging to further investigate multiple incidents of Ketcham’s “inappropriate behavior with the opposite sex.” This pledge only lasted two years, however, as they fired their independent investigator in 2013.

This is purity culture as rape culture in action.

The desire to set themselves apart from the secular world at large has led numerous Christian institutions to pretend that rape is not a problem, even in the most clear-cut of cases. I spoke to Tamara Rice, a former missionary kid with ABWE and a current child advocate. In Rice’s opinion, the theology of ABWE (theology mirrored by Christian colleges across the country) contributed greatly to their mishandling of cases of rape. Such mishandling, Rice said, is likely a result of “their beliefs about women’s worth combined with their beliefs about abuse—a lack of conviction that it is not the victim’s fault—and also what I would call their theology of reputation, meaning their belief that the ministry as a whole couldn’t survive the truth being told about one individual.”

This delicate dance between the theology that places women and survivors into a lower class of people, and the theology that says “the world is watching, put up a good front,” has made the falls from grace at Christian colleges all the greater. The complicated web of bad theologies, fragile reputations, and lack of oversight will only come to an end when conservative Christians are willing to look their own theology in the face and acknowledge its effects. As Hoffman put it in a statement to me:

It is a performance-based, sex-negative, body-shaming, legalistic system of moralizing (or “Christlikeness,” as they often term it). There is no room for genuine grace, no room for mercy, no room for substantive disagreement or even the slightest disagreement over doctrine or its application. Authoritarian systems don’t generally operate with transparency. They also tend to be abusive.

Until the theological problem of top-down authority is addressed, more students will be victimized. More students will find themselves without recourse. And more lives will be ruined.

Image: Christian school via Shutterstock

The post Christian Colleges Have a Sexual Assault Problem appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift: Changing the Conversation on Reproductive Rights and Moral Values

RH Reality Check - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 09:08

Cross-posted with permission from Away Point.

Most Americans think of childbearing as a deeply personal or even sacred decision. So do most reproductive rights advocates. That is why we don’t think anybody’s boss or any institution should have a say in it. But for almost three decades, those of us who hold this view have failed to create a resonant conversation about why, sometimes, it is morally or spiritually imperative that a woman can stop a pregnancy that is underway.

My friend Patricia offers a single reason for her passionate defense of reproductive care that includes abortion: Every baby should have its toes kissed. If life is precious and helping our children to flourish is one of the most precious obligations we take on in life, then being able to stop an ill-conceived gestation is a sacred gift. Whether or not we are religious, deciding whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a process steeped in spiritual values: responsibility, stewardship, love, honesty, compassion, freedom, balance, discernment. But how often do we hear words like these coming from pro-choice advocates?

Our inability to talk in morally resonant terms about abortion has clouded the broader conversation about mindful childbearing. The cost in recent decades has been devastating. In developing countries, millions of real women and children have died because abortion-obsessed American Christians banned family planning conversations as a part of HIV prevention efforts. Those lost lives reveal the callous immorality of the anti-choice movement.

Back home, here in the United States, our inability to claim the moral high ground about abortion has brought us one of the most regressive culture shifts of a generation. We are, incredibly, faced with “personhood rights” for fertilized eggs, pregnancies that begin legally before we even have sex, politicians with “Rape Tourette’s,” and a stunningly antagonistic debate about contraceptive technologies that could make as many as 90 percent of unintended pregnancies along with consequent suffering and abortions simply obsolete.

The voices that are strongest on reproductive rights often falter when it comes to the cultural dialogue. At least part of this absence is because so many of the pro-choice movement’s leaders and funders are secular and civic in their orientation, awkwardly uncomfortable with the moral and spiritual dimension of the conversation, or, for that matter, even with words like moral and spiritual. From language that seems moderately wise–Who decides?–we fall back on “safe, legal and rare” (a questionable effort to please everyone) or even the legal jargon of the “right to privacy.”

The other side talks about murdering teeny, weeny babies and then mind-melds images of ultrasounds and Gerber babies with faded photos of later abortions. And we come back by talking about privacy?? Is that like the right to commit murder in the privacy of your own home or doctor’s office? Even apart from the dubious moral equivalence, let’s be real: In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under 25 in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?

The right to privacy may work in court. But it is a proxy for much deeper values at play. Privacy simply carves out space for individual men and women to wrestle with those values. In the court of public opinion, it is the underlying values that carry the conversation.

Far too often those who care most about the lives of women and children and the fabric of life on this planet limit themselves to legal and policy fights. Fifty years ago, reproductive rights activists took the abortion fight to the courts and won, and they have kept that focus ever since. But the legal fight has drawn energy away from the broader conversation. And the emphasis on “privacy” has meant that even the most powerful stories that best illustrate our sacred values are too often kept quiet.

Legal codes and cultural sensibilities are never independent of each other. Abortion rights were secured legally because of a culture shift that was aided by anguished stories and statements by compassion-driven Christian theologians during the 1960s and 1970s. The brutal deaths of American women every year, at a peak of thousands in the 1930s, was, beyond question or doubt, a profound immorality that many Americans were desperate to stop. Protestant leaders across the theological spectrum took a moral stand in support of legal abortion. In contrast to the Vatican, they had long agreed that thoughtful decision making about whether to bring a child into the world serves compassion and wellbeing—the very heart of humanity’s shared moral core.

At this point it should be clear that the tide has turned. Opponents, having lost in court, instead took their fight to conservative churches, where they have been refining their appeals for 40 years. The last few years have seen a systematic erosion of legal rights driven by a culture shift that had been building long before. It has also seen a complete reversal of the once-stalwart moral support for reproductive rights among American Protestants, which in the 1950s was seen as a moral good by almost every denomination from the most liberal to the most conservative. Unless this shift is challenged and stopped, there is every reason to fear that abortion will once again become inaccessible for most women in the United States.

Can pro-choice advocates reclaim the moral and spiritual high ground? Yes. But to do so will require a challenge to the status quo on two fronts. Rather than ignoring the right’s moral claims, we must confront their arguments. We must also express our pro-choice position in clear, resonant, moral, and spiritual terms. In other words, in combination, we must show why ours is the more moral, more spiritual position.

This isn’t as hard as it sounds. Most “pro-life” positions aren’t really “pro-life”; they are no-choice. They are designed to protect traditional gender roles and patriarchal institutions and, specifically, institutional religion. The Catholic bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention—both leaders in the charge against reproductive rights—represent traditions in which male “headship” and control of female fertility have long been tools of competition for money and power. They use moral language to advance goals that have little to do with the wellbeing of women or children or the sacred web of life that sustains us all.

The arguments they make to attain these ends are powerful emotionally but not rationally. They appeal to antiquated and brittle conceptions of God. They appeal to the crumbling illusion of biblical and ecclesiastical perfection—and the crumbling authority of authority itself. They corrupt the civil rights tradition and turn religious freedom on its head. They play games with our protective instinct and cheapen what it means to be a person. They lie.

That adds up to a lot of vulnerability in what should be the stronghold of the priesthood: their claim to speak for what is good and right.

Republican strategist Karl Rove will go down in history for his strategy of attacking enemies on their perceived strength—for example, by attacking John Kerry on his war record. In the recent election, we saw this strategy in play on both sides. Obama proved to be less vulnerable than his opponents hoped on his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. But by the time the election was over, Romney’s strongest credential, his background in business, was seen by many as parasitic “vulture capitalism.” If we want Americans to understand and distance themselves from the moral emptiness of the “pro-life” movement, we will have to challenge the patriarchs in their home turf, in their position as moral guides.

Here, for openers, are a few ways we might change the conversation:

1. Talk about the whole moral continuum. moral continuum ranges from actions that are forbidden, to those that are allowed, to those that are obligatory. When it comes to abortion, we talk only about one-half of this continuum—Is it forbidden or is it allowed?—when, in actuality, a women faced with an ill-conceived pregnancy often experiences herself at the other end of the continuum, wrestling with a set of competing duties or obligations. What is my responsibility to my other children? To society? To my partner?To myself? (To cite a personal example, my husband and I chose an abortion under circumstances where it would have felt like a violation of our core values to do otherwise.) The current conversation doesn’t reflect the real quandaries women face, one in which moral imperatives can and do compete with other moral imperatives. Nor does it reflect the wide range of spiritual values and God concepts that enter into the decision-making process.

  • No-choice advocates say: Abortion is immoral. God hates abortion.
  • We can say: For me, bringing a child into the world under bad circumstances is immoral. It violates my moral and spiritual values. / Whose God decides?

2. Challenge the “personhood”/fetus-as-baby concept both philosophically and visually. The history of humanity’s evolving ethical consciousness has focused on the question of who counts as a person, and if the arc bends toward justice it is because it is an arc of inclusion. Non-land-owning men, slaves, women, poor workers, children—our ancestors have fought and won “personhood” rights for each of these, and abortion foes are smart to invoke this tradition. But their ploy involves a sleight of hand. The civil rights tradition is built on what a “person” can think and feel. By contrast, the anti-choice move is about DNA, and it seeks to trigger visual instincts that make us feel protective toward anything that looks remotely like a baby, even a stuffed animal. In reality, the tissue removed during most abortions is minute, a gestational sac the size of a dime or quarter, which is surprising to people who have been exposed to anti-abortion propaganda. It strikes almost no one as being the substance of “personhood.”

  • They say: Abortion is murder. Abortion kills little babies.
  • We can say: A person can think and feel. My cat can feel hungry or hurt or curious or content; an embryo cannot. / Thanks to better and better pregnancy tests, over 60 percent of abortions now occur before 9 weeks’ gestation. Want to see what they actually look like?

3. Admit that the qualities of “personhood” begin to emerge during gestation. Pregnancy is no longer the black box it was at the time of Roe v. Wade. Ultrasound and photography have made fetal development visible, and research is beginning to offer a glimpse into the developing nervous system, with the potential to answer an important question: What, if anything, is a fetus capable of experiencing at different stages of development? Although this isn’t the only question in the ethics of abortion, it is undeniably relevant. How we treat other living beings has long been guided by our knowledge of what they can experience and want. By implication, ethics change over the course of pregnancy. A fertilized egg may not be a person except by religious definitions, but by broad human agreement a healthy newborn is, and in between is a continuum of becoming. Most Americans understand this argument morally and emotionally. The Roe trimester framework also codified it legally. Ethical credibility requires that we acknowledge and address the ethical complexities at stake.

  • They say: A fetus is a baby. A baby is a living soul from the moment of conception.
  • We can say: In nature, most fertilized eggs never become babies. A fetus isbecoming a baby, grows into a baby, is a potential personor is becoming a person.

4. Pin blame for high abortion rates where it belongson those who oppose contraception—and call out the immorality of their position because it causes expense and suffering. Unintended pregnancy is the main cause of abortion. Right now half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended. For unmarried women under 30, that’s almost 70 percent. A third of those pregnancies end in abortion. The reality is that abortion is an expensive, invasive medical procedure. For the price of one abortion, we can provide a woman with the best contraceptive protection available, something that will be over 99 percent effective for up to 12 years. If every woman had information and access to state-of-the-art long-acting contraceptives, half of abortions could go away before Barack Obama gets out of office.

  • They say: Liberals are to blame for abortion. Planned Parenthood is an abortion mill.
  • We can say: Obstructing contraceptive knowledge and access causes abortion and unwanted babies. That’s what’s immoral. We have the technology to prevent almost all of the suffering and expense caused by unintended pregnancy, but many women don’t have access to that information or technology because of the twisted moral priorities of religious and cultural conservatives. Barack Obama and Planned Parenthood have done more to prevent abortions in America than all of the choice opponents combined. The no-choice position is anti-life. It kills women. It puts faith over life.

5. Acknowledge and address the powerful mixed feelings surrounding abortion. The most common emotional reaction to abortion is relief. That said, women react physically and emotionally in a variety of ways to terminating a pregnancy. Sometimes, even those who are clear that they have made the best decision feel a surprising intensity of loss. Women should be given the support they need to process whatever their experience may be. We also need to understand that some abortion opponents actively induce guilt and trauma in women who have had abortions.

  • They say: Abortion is psychologically scarring. Women end up haunted by guilt and permanently traumatized after having an abortion.
  • We can say: No one should do something that violates her own values. Violating your values is wounding; that is why each woman should be supported in following her own moral, spiritual, and life values when making decisions about pregnancy.

6. Own religious freedom. Religious freedom is for individuals, not institutions. If the women and men who work for religious institutions all perceived the will of God in the same way, their employers wouldn’t be trying to control them by controlling their benefits package. Religious institutions have always tried to override the spiritual freedom of individuals, and they use the arm of the law as a lever whenever they can, and that is what they are doing now.

  • They say: Employers shouldn’t be forced to provide contraceptive or abortion coverage.
  • We can say: The freedom to choose how your employees spend their hard-earned benefits and the freedom to choose whether to have a child are two very different things. No institution—and nobody’s boss–should have a say in one of the most personal and sacred decisions we can make: whether to have child. That is why all women, regardless of who they work for, should have access to the full range of contraceptives and reproductive care.

7. Talk about children and parenting, not just women. Responsible and loving parents do what they can to give their kids a good life. We take our kids to doctors, get them the best schooling we can afford, love them up, and pour years of our lives into helping them acquire the skills that will let them be happy, kind, generous, hard-working adults. But parenting starts before we even try to get pregnant. We consider our own education and finances and whether we have the kind of partnership or social support that would help a child to thrive. We may quit smoking or drinking to be as healthy as possible during pregnancy. More often than not, the decision to stop a given pregnancy is a part of this much bigger process of mindful, responsible parenting.

  • They say: Abortion is selfish. Women just want to have sex without consequences.
  • We can say: A loving mother makes hard decisions to bring her kids the best life possible. A responsible woman takes care of herself. A caring father wants the best life possible for his children. Wise parents know their limits.

8. Embrace abortion as a sacred gift or blessing. For years we have talked as if abortion were a lesser evil, rather than a remarkable gift. In reality, no medical procedure is pleasant and yet the option to have the treatments and surgeries we need is an unmitigated good. The term “safe, legal and rare” confuses things because it implies that what should be rare is the treatment rather than the problem, unintended pregnancy. An abortion should be exactly as safe, legal and rare as a surgery to remove swollen tonsils or an infected appendix. If we think about abortion like we think about other medical services, then the attitude is one not of shame or ambivalence but of gratitude.

  • They say: Abortion is bad. An abortion is regrettable.
  • We can say: An ill-conceived pregnancy is bad. An unintended pregnancy is regrettable. An abortion when needed is a blessing. It is a gift, a grace, a mercy, a cause for gratitude, a new lease on life. Being able to choose when and whether to bring a child into the world enables us and our children to flourish.

9. Honor doctors who provide abortion services as we honor other healers. The human body fends off most infections and cancers, but not all. It spontaneously heals most broken bones and closes many wounds but not all. Similarly, it spontaneously aborts most problem pregnancies, but not all. Nature tends to abort pregnancies where there are problems with cell division or fetal development, where there is little chance for a fetus to become a healthy, thriving person. Through medical or surgical abortion, as through every other medical procedure, doctors and healers extend the work of nature—of God, if you will—to promote health and wellbeing. By ending pregnancies that don’t have a good chance to turn into thriving children and adults, they are—literally or metaphorically–doing God’s work.

  • They say: Abortionists are murderers.
  • We can say: God (or Nature) aborts most fertilized eggs. Abortion doctors are compassionate healers who devote their lives to helping women and men ensure that they have strong, well-planned, wanted families. Their work is as sacred as any in the field of medicine.

10. Honor women who decide to terminate pregnancies just as we honor motherhood. Sometimes the decision to end a problem pregnancy is clear and simple. Other times not. Either way, a woman often has to fight off a sense of shame and blame that she has internalized from religious and social conservatives—too often, including other women. She may feel bad even when her own values are clear and the decision has been thoughtful. How often do we affirm and honor the wisdom of women who make difficult childbearing choices (abortion, adoption, waiting) so as to best manage their lives and their parenting?

Most women choose an abortion so that they can later choose a well-timed pregnancy; or so they can take good care of the kids they have, ensuring those kids have the best possible chance in life. Sometimes a woman ends a pregnancy because she is choosing to put her life energy elsewhere. Even then, she is accepting that to embrace life fully she must choose among the kinds of good available to her and take responsibility for avoiding harm. She may or may not put it in these terms, but those are moral and spiritual questions, the kind that religion has long sought to guide. That is why many religious traditions support a woman or couple in weighing their own deepest values when it comes to reproductive decisions.

As individual stories show, the decision to end a pregnancy may be based in humility, responsibility, nurturing, prudence, forethought, vision, aspiration, stewardship, love, courage … or some combination of these qualities. Mere tolerance fails to affirm the many strengths that go into reproductive decisions, including the decision to end a pregnancy. These are virtues worthy of honor.

  • They say: An abortion is shameful. An abortion should be kept secret. An abortion needs to be forgiven by God.
  • We can say: Choosing abortion can be wise and brave. It can be loving and generous. It can be responsible and self-sacrificing.

Image: Baby feet via Shutterstock

The post Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift: Changing the Conversation on Reproductive Rights and Moral Values appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Good news for now! The Ninth Circuit Court just temporarily blocked a new law in...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 16:54
Good news for now! The Ninth Circuit Court just temporarily blocked a new law in Arizona from going into effect that limits medical abortion.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Temporarily Blocks Arizona Medication Abortion Rules
The temporary, emergency order will stay in place through Monday while the federal appeals court considers advocates' request to block regulations they claim threatens access to medication abortions statewide.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Temporarily Blocks Arizona Medication Abortion Rules

RH Reality Check - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 16:19

On Wednesday, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a temporary emergency injunction blocking a lower court’s order that allows severe new restrictions on medication abortions from taking effect in Arizona.

Reproductive health advocates and providers filed their appeal just one day after the ruling and asked the Ninth Circuit to reverse the lower court’s order. Wednesday’s temporary injunction by the Ninth Circuit will remain in place through Monday while the federal appeals court considers that request.

“Arizona women should not be denied their constitutional rights or their ability to get critical health care from the medical professionals they trust while this unconstitutional law continues to make its way through the courts,” said David Brown, staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement following the appeal. “We are confident that the Ninth Circuit will do what the lower court’s ruling failed to do: protect women’s rights and health by preserving the same safe and legal access to non-surgical abortion that Arizona women have had for over a decade.”

At issue in the lawsuit are regulations that require abortion providers to follow outdated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protocol when administering medication abortions. Advocates and health-care providers argue this protocol is inferior and less effective, because it prevents doctors from off-label use of abortion medications in such a way that violates the standard of patient care. According to advocates, if the Arizona rules are allowed to go into effect, the result will be to deny most Arizona women access to an alternative to surgical abortion that has been widely recognized as safe and effective by medical experts and organizations worldwide for over a decade.

Arizona’s medication abortion restrictions are similar to those passed in states like Texas that have also sought to severely restrict, if not ban altogether, the practice of medication abortion, despite concerns raised by the medical community. Last year, the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came out against the efforts in Texas and elsewhere to dictate medical practice by forcing physicians who prescribe medication abortions to follow FDA protocol. Yet despite opposition from the medical community, federal and state courts have split on blocking similar restrictions. Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld similar restrictions in Texas, while another federal court did the same for Ohio. But the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down that state’s medication abortion restriction, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overrule, while a state court in North Dakota blocked a similar law there.

Image: Scales of justice via Shutterstock

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Texas Abortion Providers Head Back to Court in New HB 2 Lawsuit

RH Reality Check - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 14:10

A group of doctors announced Wednesday that they will file suit against the State of Texas, six months before a new law is expected to shutter 18 of Texas’ 25 existing legal abortion facilities. The providers are represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which also represented some of the same medical professionals in a lawsuit against the state filed last fall.

In a statement, CRR President Nancy Northrup said that her organization “filed this lawsuit to stop the second-largest state in the nation from plunging millions of women back into the darkness and grave danger of illegal abortion that Roe v. Wade was supposed to end.”

The lawsuit challenges two provisions of HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion law passed last summer after a special legislative session saw thousands of Texans descend on their state capitol in support of reproductive rights following state Sen. Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster of the bill.

The plaintiffs, which include providers from El Paso, Central Texas, Dallas, and the Rio Grande Valley, are asking for a court order that would prevent abortion providers from having to renovate—or build anew—facilities to mirror hospital-style ambulatory surgical centers (ASC), construction that can often cost millions of dollars. Though the conservative sponsors of HB 2 claimed that its intent was to improve patient safety, when the law was passed last summer, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, tweeted that it was intended to shutter as many legal abortion providers as possible.

Only six existing ambulatory surgical centers in Texas provide abortions, with a seventh tentatively expected to open in San Antonio this fall. If HB 2′s ASC requirements go into effect, about three-quarters of Texas abortion providers would be forced to close, and none would remain open west or south of San Antonio, or east of Houston.

Secondly, two abortion providers in far south and far west Texas are asking the court to block the provision of HB 2 that requires them to have hospital admitting privileges if they perform legal abortions. That provision ended access to legal abortion in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in November 2013.

In January, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in an earlier lawsuit brought against the state by some of the same plaintiffs, and last week a three-judge panel issued an opinion in favor of the State of Texas, ruling that the provisions of HB 2 that heavily restrict the prescription of medication abortions and which require abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges are constitutional, and do not impose an “undue burden” on Texans seeking legal abortion procedures.

Researchers at the University of Texas’ Texas Policy Evaluation Project have estimated that more than 22,000 Texans would be unable to access legal abortion as a result of those two provisions. Critics of the law say the impact is expected to be much greater if the state is left with only a handful of legal abortion providers, located only in major metropolitan areas.

Image: Lawsuit via Shutterstock

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Texas Continues to Fight Back: Center for Reproductive Rights To File Second Lawsuit Against HB2’s Devastating Abortion Restrictions

Center for Reproductive Rights - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 13:57
Center for Reproductive Rights To File Second Lawsuit Against HB2’s Devastating Abortion Restrictions New legal challenge to HB2 seeks to block admitting privileges requirement as it applies to two communities devastated by the law and onerous building requirements that would close majority of the remaining abortion clinic in Texas

04.02.14 - (PRESS RELEASE) Just a few days after a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to block two provisions of a far-reaching and unconstitutional legislative attack on women’s rights and health care passed in Texas last summer—a measure that has since closed several abortion clinics and created a devastating health care crisis for countless women—the Center for Reproductive Rights announced it will file a new lawsuit today against House Bill 2.

The new federal lawsuit will comprise two parts. First, it seeks an immediate court order blocking the law’s requirement that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals as it applies to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Health Services in El Paso—two clinics that are among the last, if not the only, reproductive health care providers offering safe, legal abortion care in their communities.

Second, the lawsuit seeks to strike down HB2’s provision that every reproductive health care facility offering abortion services meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). The requirement, which is set to take effect September 1, would force reproductive health clinics offering abortion care to either rebuild from the ground up and become essentially mini-hospitals or close entirely—leaving fewer than 10 clinics in a state with a female population of 13 million. There would not be a single abortion clinic west or south of San Antonio, forcing many women to endure a roundtrip of more than a thousand miles to access safe and legal abortion services or cross state lines.

Said Nancy Northup, President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“We filed this lawsuit to stop the second-largest state in the nation from plunging millions of women back into the darkness and grave danger of illegal abortion that Roe v. Wade was supposed to end.

“If these legislative attacks on women’s health care continue to take effect, fewer than 10 clinics will be available to provide abortion care to Texas’s 13 million women. Many women will suddenly face a round trip as far as 1,000 miles from their homes to obtain abortion care in their own state.

“There is no question that the politicians who passed this law intended this as the final blow in their assault on women’s constitutional right and ability to safely and legally end a pregnancy in Texas.

“It is an affront to women’s dignity, endangering their health, well-being, and lives. It is an attack on the U.S. Constitution, and the rights it guarantees all of us to make our own decisions about our families without interference from politicians, and it must be struck down.”

Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen has been unable to provide abortion services to their patients since the admitting privileges requirement took effect in November 2013 and most recently closed its doors entirely, leaving the Rio Grande Valley without an abortion provider and continuing to force women to travel 300 hundred miles roundtrip to the next nearest clinic. In El Paso, Reproductive Health Services was initially able to obtain temporary privileges at a local hospital, but those privileges are set to expire next month.

In addition to Whole Woman’s Health and Reproductive Services, the Center also represents Abortion Advantage, Austin Women’s Health Center; Killeen Women’s Health Center; and a group of physicians who provide abortion services at these clinics.

The clinics and physicians in today’s lawsuit are represented by Stephanie Toti and Esha Bhandari of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and John H. Bucy II, an Austin attorney.

The Center—along with other reproductive health advocates and providers—initially filed a joint lawsuit against HB2 in September 2013, challenging the law’s unconstitutional restrictions on medication abortion as well as the admitting privileges requirement. The admitting privileges provision was initially struck down, but then took effect on October 31, 2013 after a decision by the Fifth Circuit to stay the lower court’s injunction. The results have been nothing short of devastating, leaving thousands of women who are already facing extremely limited reproductive health care options due to drastic family planning cuts in 2011 without access to health care and several clinics closing their doors across the state. Just last week, the Fifth Circuit ultimately upheld both the admitting privileges requirement as applied to all clinics in the state and the restrictions on medication abortion.

Harmful and unconstitutional restrictions like HB2 these further underscore the need for the federal Women Health Protection Act (S. 1696/H.R. 3471)—a bill that would prohibit states like Texas from imposing unconstitutional restrictions on reproductive health care providers that apply to no similar medical care, interfere with women’s personal decision making, and block access to safe and legal abortion services.

One-Third of Texas Women Will Soon Lack Access to Safe, Legal Abortion Following Appellate Court Ruling Fifth Circuit Ruling Deepens Health Crisis Facing Texas Women by Continuing to Deny Texas Women Safe, Legal Abortion Services New Lawsuit Challenges Arizona’s Unconstitutional Restrictions on Non-Surgical Abortion Court Decision Protects Abortion Access for Most Women in Texas, But Upholds Restrictions on Medication Abortion

Mississippi Passes 20-Week Abortion Ban, Governor Promises to Sign

RH Reality Check - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 13:49

On Tuesday, the Mississippi legislature approved a ban on abortion at 20 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period, with no exceptions for rape or incest, despite the fact that the state’s only abortion clinic only performs abortions up to 16 weeks.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said Tuesday that he looked forward to quickly signing the bill, HB 1400, which passed the state house 91 to 20 and the state senate 41 to 10.

The ban does allow exceptions in the case of severe fetal anomaly, or if a pregnancy poses a serious threat to a woman’s health or life. While legislators repeatedly refused amendments that would make exceptions for rape or incest, one significant amendment did go through last month. That amendment effectively moved the cutoff date two weeks earlier in a pregnancy, from 20 weeks “after conception” to 20 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period. That effectively makes the bill an 18-week ban.

The only other “20-week” abortion ban passed with such an early cutoff was in Arizona, and that law has been permanently blocked by courts for unconstitutionally banning abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb. However, the appeals court that would decide any constitutional challenges to this ban is the same one that has upheld severe restrictions on abortion providers in Texas.

Twenty-week bans are justified by anti-choice legislators using scientifically discredited ideas that fetuses can feel pain that early in a pregnancy, but the aim of such bans appears to be forcing a challenge to Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court, since the bans contradict that ruling. National Right to Life, which has drafted model legislation on which many of these bans are based, has a quote from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback making that goal clear at the top of its “State Legislative Center” webpage: “And a court case can get up to the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade be overturned. Which will ultimately happen. We have to keep pushing at these state levels.”

Similar 20-week bans are actively enforced in nine other states. South Carolina is actively pursuing passing one this year. West Virginia’s Democratically controlled legislature nearly passed one, but the normally anti-choice Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed it last week because his lawyers advised him the ban was unconstitutional, and because he said it interfered with the doctor-patient relationship.

Image: Wikipedia

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It's not just Hobby Lobby. Bosses at car dealerships and weapons manufacturers w...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 13:19
It's not just Hobby Lobby. Bosses at car dealerships and weapons manufacturers want to deny birth control coverage to their employees.

It's not just Hobby Lobby: these 71 companies don't want to cover your birth control either
Meet the companies battling Obamacare's contraceptive mandate.

Greg Abbott's education plan uses ideas from a man who believes that white men a...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 04/02/2014 - 12:30
Greg Abbott's education plan uses ideas from a man who believes that white men are naturally smarter than women and people of color.

GOP Candidate Cites Man Who Believes Women And Minorities Are Inferior
In his pre-Kindergarten education plan released this week, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott cites the work of a man who believes that women and minorities are intellectually inferior to white men. Abbott's plan explains how he'...


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