Imagine this: You had sex and the condom broke. You definitely don’t want to get pregnant. You cannot afford to have a baby. The next morning you walk into your neighborhood pharmacy to get emergency contraception. The pharmacist looks at you and says no, he won’t give it to you, that’s not something he believes in, his buddy here behind the counter doesn’t either, and you’d better go somewhere else.
Astonishingly, this scenario does not violate a corporate-level policy governing more than 7,600 CVS/pharmacy stores in the United States. Despite recent changes from the Food and Drug Administration, certain types of emergency contraception, including but not limited to brands sold as ella and Next Choice, still require a prescription or are behind the pharmacy counter and require proof of age. When the personal beliefs of all available pharmacists on duty conflict with someone’s need for emergency contraception, CVS specifies that the person seeking emergency contraception should go to another store.
Another type of emergency contraception, Plan B One-Step, is supposed to be sold on the shelf for anyone to pick up and bring to the cash register, but the refusal policy at CVS also extends to sales associates who may refuse to sell emergency contraception that would otherwise be available without a prescription, or who may not be effectively trained to know that it can be purchased by young teens. Mike DeAngelis, a CVS spokesperson, told RH Reality Check in an email that the vast majority of its emergency contraception sales are non-prescription and do not require a pharmacist.
This matters. CVS is an influential player in the industry, and arguably the largest: It receives the most prescription revenue of any pharmacy in the United States. That there is no guarantee of in-store access to contraception is an especially curious thing to consider when the chain is making headlines for its plan to stop selling tobacco products in order to hone a focus on providing for health-care needs. But whose health-care needs?
Emergency Contraception and Its Intended Availability: A Primer
Emergency contraceptive pills prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure, and are most effective when taken as immediately as possible. There are different rules about how emergency contraception should be dispensed, depending on its variety:
In this climate, misinformation about the availability of emergency contraception reigns, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers representing themselves as women 17 years of age called 940 pharmacies in five major cities and were told 20 percent of the time that they could not get emergency contraception at all. This wasn’t the only completely false information they found: It wasn’t uncommon to hear that a parent or legal guardian must come along, or that a partner or other person couldn’t buy a prescription for them.
Another thing the callers heard? Pharmacy staff sometimes shared personal reasons for refusing to dispense or stock emergency contraception. Which brings us back to the refusal policy held by CVS, a behemoth that empowers its employees to say no and ultimately puts the burden on accessing emergency contraception back to the customer.
A Corporate Policy Allowing Refusals at CVS
CVS has a longstanding policy that pharmacists and sales associates with personal objections to emergency contraceptives or other drugs are not required to dispense or sell them. The policy also offers ostensible protections to customers and patients that go almost but not quite far enough—a difference made critical by the time-sensitive nature of the need for emergency contraception.
Ten years ago, the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for Women began to picket CVS stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area because CVS would not guarantee in-store access to contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives. (Disclosure: I was president of the group at that time.) What caught our attention then was a rash of incidents, some local and some national, of pharmacists in a variety of chains refusing to dispense contraception. The first case we saw was that of a woman who was denied a refill of her monthly prescription at a CVS in Fort Worth, Texas. So we wrote CVS, and spokesperson Tracylynn Dubois cleared up the confusion. Here’s what Dubois told us:
We respect the deeply held personal beliefs of our pharmacists if they have an objection to filling a given medication. Our policy is that … [if another pharmacist] … is not on duty, the pharmacist must contact a nearby pharmacy, whether it is another CVS or a competitor, in order to refer the customer there to have the prescription filled.
This policy still stands, as confirmed by a February 10 email to RH Reality Check from company spokesperson Mike DeAngelis.
Notably, CVS employees are supposed to proactively declare their desire to refuse to fill or sell requests for emergency contraception. If CVS is on its own initiative placing responsibility on its employees to share their refusal to dispense a health product, and it requires those employees to refer the sale to another employee, why won’t CVS accept the responsibility to ensure that another pharmacist who isn’t biased against preventive health care for women is scheduled to work at the same time?
A Health-Care Company Not Acting Like One
CVS is getting a lot of attention for its decision to stop selling tobacco, and it is positioning itself as a health-care company. As Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark, which operates CVS/pharmacy stores, said in a press release about that decision, “CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners. The significant action we’re taking today by removing tobacco products from our retail shelves further distinguishes us in how we’re serving our patients, clients and health care providers and better positions us for continued growth in the evolving healthcare marketplace.”
If CVS wishes to keep moving in the direction of providing health care, the women who patronize it need to know they can come in to the store for contraceptives and leave that same store with contraceptives in hand.
Tobacco is a product that we know kills people, and it makes sense for a health company to pull it from its shelves. Contraceptives, on the other hand, are basic medical care for women, and patients of all genders deserve to know these health-care needs will be met by CVS. Nearly two-thirds of women of reproductive age currently use a contraceptive method. It should be noted that the CVS refusal policy extends to all prescriptions, including all contraception, and not just emergency contraception.
From the pharmacy to the religiously affiliated institution providing health insurance, access to contraceptives has come to be framed as two sets of individual liberties, pitted in competition: the right of a woman to access contraceptives, and the right of another individual to act according to his conscience. This frame is troubling when it comes to the provision of medical care, Greg Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told RH Reality Check. He suggests that when we’re looking at this issue, we should see the question this way: “Does a pharmacist have a right, due to his or her religious beliefs, to interfere with the rights of third parties—by interfering with the medical care of customers who have made their own, independent decisions to purchase and use contraception?”
For now, CVS continues to answer this question the wrong way.
Not a Reasonable Accommodation
CVS is claiming to be a health-care provider while putting a heavier burden on women to get access to primary care. Facing refusal at one store may mean that a woman has to travel a great distances to find another store, particularly in rural areas and for people with limited transportation options and those with disabilities. This scenario is even more troubling given the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception, which relies on taking a specific dosage in a limited window of time, generally between 24 and 120 hours after unprotected sex, with an efficacy rate that is higher the sooner it is taken. Further, you just may not have additional “time” to take away from work, family, or other responsibilities on a wild goose chase in search of a legal drug that you have a constitutionally protected right to use.
In a follow-up email, RH Reality Check asked DeAngelis to explain what happens when CVS is the only provider in town, and the question was not answered. However, DeAngelis wrote, “The overriding priority regarding the sale of emergency contraception is that the customer’s needs must be met.” This is a logical priority in need of a commitment, in the form of making sure that at least some pharmacists and sales associates willing to dispense and sell emergency contraception are on duty when the lights turn on.
CVS could, and should, guarantee in-store access to emergency contraception. It is reasonable to expect CVS to take a page from its own playbook and step up as a health-care company—in this case changing its policy to guarantee that emergency contraception and all other forms of contraception will be accessible in every store, regardless of individual employees who object to it. This is not about personal beliefs, this is about health care, and no one has the right to deny anyone else access to care based on ideology. Customers of CVS should start demanding that the chain treat all persons equally, including those in need of contraception, whether in an emergency or not.
Image: 360b / Shutterstock.com
The post Dear CVS: A Real ‘Health-Care Company’ Guarantees In-Store Access to Birth Control appeared first on RH Reality Check.
North Dakota legislators turned 2013 into a carnival of anti-choice activity, with the introduction of six bills and one constitutional amendment all seeking to wind back access to abortion services in the state.
Like their counterparts in many anti-choice state legislatures, the North Dakotan lawmakers behind these bills were undeterred by the fact that most of them would be challenged, and likely defeated, in the courts.
“I fully expect this bill to be challenged,” said Rep. Alan Fehr (R-Dickinson) last February, during a House Human Services Committee debate on a bill, which—had it not been blocked in court—would have banned abortion at the first detection of a fetal heartbeat. As Fehr noted, the proposed legislation would bring down the deadline from when a woman could access a legal abortion from 22 weeks to six, before many women even know they are pregnant.
“I fully expect this to cost our taxpayers a million-plus dollars. I fully expect that passing this will not save any lives because it will be overthrown,” said Fehr, who nevertheless voted for this bill, as well as the other successful anti-choice measures, most of which were crafted by national anti-choice groups that have been using state houses in a strategic attempt to overthrow Roe v. Wade. “It is not a gray area in regards to challenging the Supreme Court.”
Documents obtained by RH Reality Check through public records requests confirm Fehr’s predictions about heavy financial hits to North Dakota taxpayers. Between January 2011 and December 2013, the state spent nearly $230,000 on litigation, with a sizable chuck going to a private law firm tasked with defending these controversial laws. In May 2013, the state set aside $400,000 to defend anticipated challenges to this new crop of anti-choice bills, at the attorney general’s request.
North Dakota is far from alone in spending large sums to defend anti-choice laws. But what makes the state unusual is that fiscal conservatives are now criticizing a double standard, where the lawmakers backing these bills are more regularly seen opposing other instances of what they call government interference, and decrying so-called big spending.
“With these bills we know we’re going to go to court; they’re all going to go to court,” said moderate Republican Rep. Kathy Hawken of Fargo last February, during a house debate over the bill banning abortions sought because of the fetus’ anticipated sex or fetal abnormality. “If they are found to be unconstitutional, we not only get to pay our share but the other share, as well,” she said, referring to legal fees.
Yet, Hawken points out that while her colleagues are willing to pass unconstitutional legislation that will likely cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, they have consistently opposed spending on prenatal health care and early childhood education.
“Prenatal care is like trying to pull teeth,” said Hawken, who identifies as “pro-life,” during a phone interview with RH Reality Check. She said she has faced regular hurdles in increasing prenatal health-care coverage for minors. “We did finally last session put a little bit of money into child care, but we still don’t do pre-K,” she said. “So, my comment has been that the bills are pro-birth, but they are not pro-life, because we don’t look at anything before the baby comes or after they get here.”
To be sure, it is the role of state attorneys general to defend laws passed by the state legislators, and from the vantage point of politicians, they are taking a moral stance.
Trevor Burrus—who researches constitutional law issues at the free-market and limited-government-supporting Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.—told RH Reality Check in a phone interview that lawmakers like Bette Grande (R-Fargo) are not at fault for, as he put it, “voting their consciences.” Burrus, who noted that he is “agnostic on the question of abortion,” also said he did not believe Grande’s heartbeat bill was clearly unconstitutional—even though the law bans abortions long before viability, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly said states cannot do.
Burrus said he does not see that as an inconsistency between voting for anti-choice measures while voting down spending more on social programs that benefit pregnant mothers and young children.
“Conservatives can be pro-life for one reason and not believe in increased social programs that they think degrades the family and encourages out-of-wedlock children,” he said.
But the links between these lawmakers, the bills they propose, and big outside groups, has rankled some North Dakotans.
At least two of the bills that passed in 2011 and 2013—forcing providers to use an outdated protocol approved by the Food and Drug Administration and banning abortion sought because of the fetus’ anticipated sex or genetic abnormality—were based on model legislation written by the Beltway nonprofit Americans United for Life (AUL), whose primary goal is to filter anti-choice laws throughout the United States, with the stated goal of sparking a review of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Grande sponsored the AUL-modeled bills, as well as a bill that banned abortion at the first detection of a heartbeat. This latter bill referenced a similar Ohio bill (which never passed), according to Kylah Aull, a manager of library and records for the North Dakota Legislative Council. Similar legislation has been blocked in Arkansas.
Grande also happens to be one of two state chairs for the Washington, D.C.-based American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which purports to advocate for limited government.
As RH Reality Check reported in January, AUL has strong ties to powerful corporate interests that are, on the surface, more committed to free-market and corporate issues than aggressive social-conservative stances. Indeed, ALEC publicly disavows involvement with social issues.
“The American Legislative Exchange Council does not maintain any model policy on reproductive health and has no position on the issue,” said ALEC spokesperson Molly Fuhs. “ALEC does not work on social issues; rather, ALEC focuses on pro-growth economic policy.”
However, for years now, AUL been capitalizing on its regular access to ALEC’s conservative legislative members, such as purchasing an exhibitor’s booth at ALEC conferences and offering anti-choice model legislation to lawmakers. AUL declined to comment for this story.
Despite her prominence in an organization that advocates for limiting government’s power, Grande has actively pushed laws that, among many provisions, require the government to police women’s motivations for obtaining a legal abortion. Not only that, but Grande shrugged off protests that these laws would likely be litigated—at the taxpayers’ expense.
“First, we should dispel the notion that this Bill should be defeated because of the cost of litigation,” Grande said in a written statement concerning the heartbeat bill. “Whether this Bill is challenged in court is entirely up to the abortion industry.”
Other Republican lawmakers shared Grande’s cavalier attitude toward the prospects of litigation over these bills.
At a House Human Services Committee hearing on the so-called heartbeat bill last February, Rep. Todd Porter (R-Mandan) argued, “There is always the threat of lawsuits and costing the taxpayers.”
And Rep. Chuck Damschen (R-Hampden) added, “This one seems like it would have as good a chance as any in court. The heartbeat issue might be something we can stand on. Anybody that takes us to court runs the risk as well.”
Though Grande testified at length about the need for a bill preventing people from having an abortion if their child is expected to have genetic abnormalities and advocated for the rights of people with disabilities, during the same legislative session she voted against a bill that would have appropriated some money to spend on services for North Dakotans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That bill died in the house.
Grande declined to comment for this story.
In addition to the organizations that helped write these laws—Americans United for Life, the National Right to Life Committee, and Personhood USA—the hearings were stacked with testifiers from these and other national groups, such as the Family Research Council and Concerned Women of America.
Rep. Gail Mooney (D-Cummings), who regularly spoke out against these anti-choice bills during house committee and floor debates, says she is angered that outside groups are using North Dakota’s legal system to push their political agenda.
“I take great offense to the fact that the national groups have now begun to target states as a ploy to be able to get something overturned that they have been unable to do and that in the meantime then they’re going to be spending taxpayer dollars as opposed to their own private dollars,” Mooney said in a phone interview.
With the state prepared to spend at minimum several hundred thousand dollars fighting anti-choice laws—on top of the quarter million dollars the state has spent since 2011, part of which it has already been paid to Grand Forks, North Dakota-based Pearson Christensen & Clapp, PLLP, the private law firm contracted to fight these laws—state lawmakers like Mooney have called on the interest groups behind many of these laws to shift the burden of these costs off of taxpayers, and onto themselves.
The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights initially challenged all but one of the 2011- and 2013-enacted laws on behalf of the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, the state’s sole abortion clinic. The center did not challenge a bill crafted by the National Right to Life Committee, which bans abortion at 20 weeks’ gestation based on the medically disproven assertion that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. Though this bill bans pre-viability abortions in violation of federal law, the center did not file a lawsuit against it, because the state’s abortion clinic does not perform abortions after 16 weeks and thus did not have legal standing to challenge the law. The center also dropped its challenge against the law banning so-called sex-selective and genetic-abnormality abortions, after determining it did not apply to the abortion clinic’s practice.
None of the other laws are in effect. The medication abortion restrictions bill was struck down by a district court but is currently pending appeal from the state supreme court. The so-called heartbeat bill has been blocked. And the bill that would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital is currently facing settlement negotiations between the state and the Center for Reproductive Rights. However, recently a nearby hospital granted the Red River Women’s Clinic admitting privileges, making the clinic in compliance with the law and, likely, closer to a settlement.
Autumn Katz, a staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said her organization will continue to challenge these laws.
“It would be great if they stopped trying to pass laws that are so blatantly unconstitutional and that we don’t have to run to court just to make sure that women continue to have access to safe and legal medical care,” Katz said. “But if that’s not the case, then the center is committed to ensuring that women in North Dakota continue to have such access. It would be unfortunate to have to keep litigating these same issues over and over again.”
Both Hawken, the moderate Republican, and Mooney, the Democrat, said they fully expect a new round of extreme anti-choice legislation when the legislature meets again in 2015. With even those who typically demand more limited government green-lighting costly litigation, there’s no telling what’s next.
“With this kind of social-activism legislation … the point is getting it passed and the heck with what it costs,” Hawken said.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
The post In North Dakota, It’s ‘No’ to Government Spending, Unless You’re Fighting Against Abortion Rights appeared first on RH Reality Check.
A coalition of 30 current and former students of the University of California, Berkeley announced Wednesday that they will be filing Title IX and Clery complaints against the university with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Clery Compliance Division (CCD). The students, all female survivors of sexual assault and harassment while attending UC Berkeley, allege that the university administration failed to properly respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
At a press conference at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Wednesday afternoon, six students who are sexual assault and harassment survivors gave statements regarding their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on the Berkeley campus. They were joined by fellow students and Berkeley alumni in a showing of solidarity and support. The students called on the university to be held accountable, and for both the OCR and CCD to investigate their claims.
The students’ actions come at a time when there have recently been dozens of reported incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses around the country. This week, the University of Michigan came under investigation by the OCR for how the university handles sexual assaults. The occurrences have become so pervasive that the Obama administration has established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
The OCR delivered a letter to college administrators in 2011, stating that sexual violence or harassment of students interferes with their “right to receive an education free from discrimination,” and universities not complying with the laws regarding the reporting of “criminal conduct,” including sexual violence, constitutes a violation of a student’s civil rights under Title IX.
Sofie Karasek, one of the organizers of the Berkeley coalition, told RH Reality Check that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in February 2012. After reporting the incident to university officials, and despite three other sexual assault survivors reporting the same student, the student was only found in violation of the university’s Code of Student Conduct; he was allowed to graduate early.
After Berkeley’s response to her sexual assault, Karasek sought a way to hold the university accountable. Last May, Karasek was part of a group of Berkeley students who filed a complaint with the OCR under the Clery Act, which requires all colleges to publicly report crime statistics, including stats for sexual assault.
Eight months later, Karasek says the Clery complaint has yet to be investigated. Despite multiple attempts to contact the Department of Education about the complaint‘s status, the students have received no response. “The parallels between Berkeley and the Department of Education is really striking,” Karasek told RH Reality Check. “The intent of each may differ, but the impact is the same.”
After filing the complaint, Karasek said that many students came forward who wanted to share their stories. In the months since the original Clery complaint was filed, a coalition of students came together to seek action.
Included with the complaint are each students’ narratives, which explain in detail their experience with sexual assault and sexual harassment on the UC Berkeley campus. RH Reality Check was provided with five of these narratives, and a review of their content revealed different experiences with sexual assault or sexual harassment but shared experiences with how they felt the university administration neglected to appropriately respond to their allegations.
In the narratives, students say they were not readily informed of resources available to them, discouraged from filing complaints by university officials, accused of fabricating being sexual assaulted to excuse poor academic performance, not fully advocated for by Title IX coordinators, left out of the investigative process, received little or no support from the university administration, and felt an overwhelming sense of fear for their safety and that their concerns were going unheard.
In her narrative, Shannon Thomas described being sexually harassed by a classmate, both in person and online. Despite the evidence in Thomas’ case, the OPHD officer said the case “likely did not fulfill the high threshold for student-to-student harassment” in the university’s Code of Student Conduct. Aryle Butler was sexually assaulted on two separate occasions by the same student, and was told by university officials that there was no recourse for her because the rapes occurred off-campus, despite taking place under university supervision during a university-supported program.
Former graduate students who attended Berkeley in the 1970s, Ruth Milkman and Linda Blum, both joined the coalition and submitted narratives sharing their experience at the college during their tenure. Their experience was strikingly similar to the experience of sexual assault survivors at Berkeley nearly four decades later; an administration whose response to claims of sexual harassment was described as “vague and noncommittal.”
There are steps that are being taken to address sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to the Obama administration’s task force, there is also legislation pending in the California Assembly to address the issue. In January 2014, Karasek advised California Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) on state legislation that would require that colleges report certain violent crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on or near campus to local law enforcement agencies.
Karasek said the actions being taken by the federal and the state government are a “good first step,” but that more action needs to be taken. She believes that the federal government needs to take further action and that universities should face more significant penalties from non-compliance with Title IX.
Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a public statement Tuesday on the university’s ongoing effort to address sexual assault prevent and response on campus. He said the university will be implementing the use of a “confidential survivor advocate,” an additional investigator to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, and an interim sexual misconduct policy “that allows survivors to appeal the resolution of sexual misconduct cases.”
The post Title IX, Clery Complaints Filed Against UC Berkeley by Current, Former Students appeared first on RH Reality Check.
The West Virginia House of Delegates Tuesday night passed a controversial bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the state.
Doctors who performed abortions after that point would be subject to up to five years in prison, as well as fines of up to $5,000, if the bill succeeds in the state senate.
Physicians would also be required to file detailed reports to the West Virginia Division of Health for each abortion they performed. The reports would include the age and race of the woman, the method of abortion, and a “unique medical record identifying number to enable matching the report to the patient’s medical records.”
Women’s rights advocates have called the bill divisive, saying it pits medical professionals, women, and their families against each other.
“This bill takes medicine out of the hands of doctors and places it with politicians by not just banning abortion care at 20 weeks, but by implementing an onerous reporting requirement for every abortion performed in the state,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, a woman’s rights group.
The bill is similar to a measure that is making its way through South Carolina’s state house, as well as a measure that passed last year in North Dakota, which resemble model legislation promulgated by the National Right to Life Committee in what it calls the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”
These bills contain lengthy so-called legislative findings, which include assertions about the fetus’ ability to feel pain, which have been rejected by a great majority of the medical and scientific community.
And while the laws typically seek to buttress pregnant women from criminal or civil penalties, they increasingly allow others to impinge on women’s privacy and constitutional rights.
For instance, the West Virginia bill allows “the spouse, parent, sibling or guardian of, or a current or former licensed health care provider of, the woman upon whom an abortion has been performed” to obtain an injunction to prevent the abortion provider from “performing or inducing or attempting to perform or induce further abortions in violation of this article in this state.”
In other words, under this law, the brother of a woman who obtained an abortion could seek an injunction against the doctor.
“It’s a new type of crazy,” said Chapman Pomponio. “Once again, we see women’s health being used as a wedge issue.”
As yet, no date has been set for debate in the senate.
Image: West Virginia Legislature
This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.
Growing up, every year during Black History Month it seemed like the same three people were always discussed in school: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and W. E. B. Du Bois. If my friends and I were lucky, sometimes we heard about George Washington Carver, who invented peanut butter, or the Tuskegee Airmen. But one thing was constant: The people we heard about were almost always male, and the people and events we were encouraged to reflect on existed in a time and place I did not feel connected to.
Black History Month began back in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, along with his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life, started encouraging the nation to celebrate “Negro History Week.” Woodson hoped that the week in February would encourage organizations and teachers to spread and popularize the information uncovered during their studies of Black life and history. In the late 1960s, at the outset of the Black power movement, interest in Black-American history increased, and the nomenclature changed. As a result, in 1976 the Association for the Study of Negro Life officially expanded the celebration to Black History Month. In 1986, Congress officially designated February as Black History Month, which remains with us today as a celebration of the contributions Blacks throughout the diaspora have made to world history.
But what is often lost in Black History Month are the contributions of Black women and the present-day concerns of all Black people in the United States. It is with that in mind that I think it’s time to change how we, as a nation, in classrooms and in the public sphere, approach Black History Month.
Why not retool our February celebrations to honor the civil rights efforts of the past while supporting and honoring the social justice work being done today? By focusing on the work that activists all over the country are currently doing, we can bring attention to the struggles that Black communities continue to face, as well as lend our support to their understaffed and under-resourced work. By ignoring the marginalization of Black communities throughout the diaspora, we are ultimately all accountable for the perpetuation of that oppression. The only way to end the domination of marginalized groups around the world is to consider ourselves responsible. This is especially true when it comes to the oppression of Black women and girls all over the country, who are victimized in some of the most reprehensible ways one can imagine. Yet and still, the suffering of Black women and girls is rendered unimportant by national civil rights organizations, which will bring attention to the tragic death of a young Black boy but ignore an equally tragic death of a young Black girl months later. It is also rendered unimportant by all of us who would rather perpetuate patriarchy by turning our heads to the continued abuse of sex workers by the state, because sex workers do not fit our desire to be understood as a respectable Black community. If we truly hope to liberate the Black community, and all marginalized communities across the United States and around the world, then we are mandated to begin with those whose suffering is often most ignored.
It is for this reason that the reproductive justice work being done by Justice Now activists in California is so critically important. Last year, their explosive report went viral after they informed the media that, between 2006 and 2010, 116 illegal tubal ligations were performed on pregnant people shortly after labor and delivery. Courtney Hooks, the Justice Now campaign and communications director, described the moving testimony of Kimberly Jeffrey, who spoke about being on the operating table about to give birth by cesarean section while in prison. After being put under anesthesia, the doctor asked Jeffrey about a tubal ligation; when she said no to the sterilization, the doctor brought her a number of forms to sign. To this day, Jeffrey isn’t sure what the forms said, but after her delivery, she later found out that she had been sterilized.
During my talk with Hooks, she told me story after story about people in women’s prisons who were sterilized without their consent. There were also quite a few people who felt coerced and pressured into receiving various forms of sterilizations. Hooks told me that multiple people were told that they had cervical cancer and that they had to be sterilized in order to save their lives. Later on, these individuals discovered that they’d never had cervical cancer in the first place, and they were left unable to conceive for the rest of their lives.
For the last 13 years, Justice Now has been collecting these stories of illegal and coerced sterilizations. Led by people within women’s prisons, they have collected surveys and interviews, which has allowed them to gather information on who is being targeted by this form of reproductive oppression. According to Hooks, the people most often targeted for sterilizations by prison doctors are Black and Latina people as well as the indigent. The class and racial dimensions of this kind of cruelty only adds to the troubling nature of this crisis.
This year, as we celebrate Black History Month, it is critical that we consider the true legacy of our ancestors. Rosa Parks did not simply sit on a bus; she also fought long and hard against a rape culture that left the sexual assault of young Black women around the country, ignored by the government, civil rights organizations, and churches. Today, I suggest that we follow in Parks’ legacy, and fight for those who are abused by the state and ignored by an ugly courtship between patriarchy and the politics of respectability.
Image: Alice Pennington / YouTube
At two-and-a-half years old, Susana Duarte’s son is starting to learn lifelong habits, like how and when to wash his hands. But more than six weeks after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River near their home in Charleston, West Virginia, the young boy’s routine now includes asking his mother, “Is the water broken?”
Duarte answers yes, the water is still broken—unless they are at her parents’ house, outside the spill zone, where she refills two seven-gallon jugs of water every week. She still only uses bottled water to bathe her son, but she’s considering using tap water to do dishes again since the chemical’s distinctive licorice-like odor has finally left their home. She’s also started allowing herself a brief shower every other day, while her husband takes one every day. “Everyone sort of makes their own rules to make themselves feel comfortable,” Duarte, an attorney, told RH Reality Check. “That is my rule.”
Duarte is also around 16 weeks pregnant.
After the chemical company Freedom Industries spilled a coal-cleaning chemical called MCHM into the Elk River on or before January 9, dumping 10,000 gallons of a substance with unknown human health effects into the water supply of 300,000 West Virginia residents, officials immediately cautioned locals not to use the water for anything other than flushing the toilet or putting out fires.
On January 13, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that the water was testing below the acceptable levels set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—one part of MCHM per million—so residents in the spill zone could start using the water as they chose. But late in the evening on January 15, the CDC recommended that out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women should stick to bottled water until the tap water samples came back with non-detectable levels of MCHM.
“We had potentially more than two days where pregnant women had already been consuming the water,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told RH Reality Check.
Duarte hadn’t used tap water during that window, but she still has concerns about the spill’s effect on her pregnancy. When the spill was announced, she was in her first trimester and hadn’t yet told anyone but close friends and family about the pregnancy. “It was an added layer of stress, to have this good news that you’re not sharing because you’re worried about all the things that can go wrong with a pregnancy normally—and then you’ve added a layer of a significant health concern on top of it,” she said.
The CDC has said since early February that the water is safe to drink for everyone in the region, including pregnant women, because tested water is at “non-detect” levels of MCHM—that is, less than ten parts per billion. Some tests can detect levels as low as one part per billion, and Gupta said he would like to see more testing done at those lowest levels. But he said that there are still many unknowns, especially where homes are concerned.
Officials don’t know, Gupta said, whether the chemicals might have leeched into the materials in home pipes, which are typically made of copper or plastic rather than the iron or PVC found in the kinds of central distribution pipes that have already been tested. The hot water in homes in the region tends to smell stronger than the cold water, which could mean that sediment is forming in hot water heaters.
Even non-detect levels haven’t always necessarily meant “safe,” as West Virginians found out with disruptive spill-related school closings that happened around the same time the CDC lifted its advisory. Three schools closed, and 14 issued complaints to health officials, as students and teachers reported strong odors and symptoms of light-headedness and watery eyes.
Already, pregnancy is “a very anxious time in people’s lives,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of reproductive rights advocacy group WV Free. “For a pregnant woman to have this kind of anxiety, uncertainty, and financial strain—it’s potentially harmful to her pregnancy.”
WV Free has been fundraising since the disaster to benefit pregnant women in need of relief as a matter of both reproductive and environmental justice.
And some advocates argue that this is not the first time West Virginia’s government has failed to protect the freedom of pregnant women and families to live without fear of environmental hazard.
A Breakdown in Trust
Officials at the January 15 press conference, at which it was announced that pregnant women should avoid tap water, said the precautionary advisory was intended to “empower” pregnant women, but many felt more confused and scared than empowered.
“It was just this frustration, every time a new announcement came out, that they didn’t know enough to support their claims,” Duarte said.
In addition to the pregnancy flip-flop, the state of West Virginia set its standard of what it deems a safe level of the chemical for humans at ten parts per billion, which is 100 times less than the level originally recommended by the CDC (one part per million), after serious questions emerged over how the CDC’s standard was determined and hospitals began seeing an increasing number of patients with rashes and eye irritations. So little testing had been done on the safety of MCHM that no one really knew what a safe level for humans, much less pregnant women, was.
What’s more, on January 23 it was announced that a second chemical had been spilled into the river in addition to MCHM. And then two additional chemical spills were reported in the river in the following weeks.
With the constant mixed messages from officials, many residents have been feeling acutely betrayed by their government. “The public is told one thing one day and another the next,” Chapman Pomponio said. “Trust has been broken.”
Duarte still doesn’t drink the water and doesn’t expect to for some time, but she still worries. What if, say, showering or washing her hands is doing some kind of harm to her pregnancy? “I’ve got an ultrasound coming up, and not that I think anything would show up at this stage from that anyways—but you’re like, what if something is there? It’s the stuff I worried about the first time [I was pregnant], but that I’m worrying about in a different way now.”
If pregnant women are worried, what about nursing women or small children? The CDC’s guidelines never specified anything about them.
“The suggestion is, the water might not be safe for a pregnant woman or an unborn child—but one minute after birth, it’s safe for both of them?” asked Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women in an interview with RH Reality Check.
Gupta, of the local health department, pointed out that extra caution may be appropriate for pregnant women because of all the unknown factors that can negatively influence, or interrupt, fetal development. But a pediatrician told the Kanawha Charleston Board of Health that if the guidelines apply to pregnant women, they should also apply to children under 3 years old. And Gupta said that from a purely scientific perspective, “there is no safe level of MCHM in the water, until and unless a study establishes one.”
“We just have no data to say one way or the other,” Gupta said. “We are only as good as our data.”
A Question of Choice, A Chance for Justice
Sarah Brown, a nursing mother in Charleston, washes all of her son’s baby bottles by hand daily with bottled water. She and her husband have started using tap water for laundry, showers, and some dishes.
“The scariest thing for us is not knowing what the long-term impact may be,” Brown told RH Reality Check. “One of the reasons we’re interested in breastfeeding, and trying to make our own baby food and things like that, is that we know exactly what’s going into [our baby's] system.” Now, Brown said, she can’t be so sure.
Despite their reproductive health concerns and daily logistical headaches, both Duarte and Brown, also an attorney, know that they enjoy privileges many of their neighbors do not. They each have family members or coworkers in nearby towns outside the nine-county spill zone, the transportation and time to drive there and do laundry or fill up water bottles, and the financial means to buy additional bottled water or other supplies if needed. Neither of the women has taken advantage of the state’s water distribution sites, reckoning that others need them more.
Virginia Gardner is one of those people in greater need, but she has also had great difficulty accessing the water distribution sites. Gardner is one of several petitioners in a lawsuit currently before the state supreme court against the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau for Public Health, and Department of Health and Human Resources. According to the petition, Gardner is living in subsidized housing on a small fixed income with her 2-year-old son. She doesn’t have a car to access distribution sites, and they are too far to walk to. Even when she did find a walking-distance site (a few days after the spill, when such sites were more plentiful than they were later in the crisis), she couldn’t carry enough water for her son and herself while also pushing his stroller. She once took her son to the hospital with chemical burns to his eyes because her landlord allegedly did not take the proper steps to flush the hot water tank.
“[Gardner] has a lot of fear related to this, and her options and her choices are dramatically limited because of her financial means, and that impacts her ability to be the parent she wants to be,” said Jennifer Wagner, an attorney at Mountain State Justice, a nonprofit law firm representing the petitioners.
Wagner said that the petitioners in the lawsuit are not seeking damages. Rather, they seek to highlight the plight of low-income and vulnerable residents, get the state supreme court to force state agencies to fulfill their obligations to keep the water supply safe, and make sure something like this never happens again.
“The way things are going, and the way things unfortunately have gone in the past, is that we have a disaster, and then we have another disaster a couple of years down the road,” Wagner said. “Our state agencies have been on notice for quite some time that something like this was about to happen, and yet didn’t take any of the actions that they knew they should have and could have taken in order to prevent it.”
One of those actions would have been implementing recommendations from a Chemical Safety Board that was formed in the wake of other accidents, but not followed up on. Pending legislation to fix some of these problems is good and necessary, Wagner said, but it may end up with too many exceptions to placate the state’s powerful extractive industries. A favorable court ruling and a good bill should, even must, work together to prevent future crises.
“It’s your decision,” Gov. Tomblin infamously told West Virginia residents when asked by reporters whether the water was actually safe to drink. “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.”
“This is a false choice low-income people have,” said Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, a day shelter for the working poor that is also a petitioner in the lawsuit. “They can’t afford it. They scrape by a little money, borrow water, we bring them water, and they bathe their children in the bottled water. They’re moms, they look after their kids first, and if there’s anything left for them, they use it—otherwise they just drink [tap water] and don’t know if it’s safe or not.”
For reproductive justice advocates, “choice” has an additional, and bitterly ironic, meaning in this context.
Chapman Pomponio of WV Free said it was “ridiculous” for the House Judiciary Committee to consider a 20-week ban on abortion (which it passed on Friday) when that committee is also tasked with the all-important “water bill.”
“There’s a historical unwillingness to regulate the coal and chemical industries, despite significant evidence of the need for that regulation,” said Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “And yet there is consideration of more regulation of abortion providers and pregnant women, without any evidence of need for that regulation.”
“It’s easier to tell pregnant women not to drink the water than to make the water safer for everybody,” Paltrow said.
The future health and reproductive autonomy of West Virginia residents remains uncertain. Gupta says his office is going to start studying possible long-term health effects from exposure to MCHM. Initial testing on ten different homes in different affected counties, which the governor initially resisted, should be completed in a few weeks, after which more funding will have to be allocated for wider home testing based on those initial results. And an unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban, considered likely to cost the state time and money only to be defeated in court, may well pass both the state house and senate.
Susana Duarte still second-guesses whether she is doing all that she can to end up with a healthy pregnancy. Virginia Gardner waits for justice and hopes to raise her son in a chemical-free Charleston. Sarah Brown, the nursing mother, said that while she plans to stick it out and advocate for change (she works with Wagner at Mountain State Justice, though she is not involved with the lawsuit), she also knows one couple with a toddler who have left town. “It’s something I worry about, people with young kids leaving, rather than staying to revitalize and make a vibrant community. It’ll be hard to retain people,” she said.
And Margaret Chapman Pomponio finds hope in a newly engaged public. “People are really mobilized,” she said. “People who have not considered themselves to be activists before find themselves turning out at multiple community events, coming to the state capitol, lobbying legislators and the governor. So we really are hopeful that with this mobilization we’ll see some positive policy change.”
Image: CNN / YouTube
The post Don’t Drink the Water: The West Virginia Chemical Spill as a Reproductive Justice Issue appeared first on RH Reality Check.
While much of the coverage of the cases has centered on the challengers’ claims that the mandate infringes on their purported corporate religious rights, there is a lot more at stake in both these cases than the question of whether or not corporations are people under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and, if so, whether they have First Amendment free exercise rights. Here are three other important arguments for upholding the mandate and rejecting these challenges to it that have nothing to do with contraception.
1. There’s a long, failed history of opposition to civil rights laws in the name of religious liberty.
In an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP, the civil rights groups draw the Supreme Court’s attention to the long history of attempts to invoke religion, and the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment specifically, to try and defeat anti-discrimination laws or to avoid complying with them. Conservatives have invoked their religious beliefs to try and justify everything from racial segregation in business to refusing to pay women the same as men. Thankfully, since the civil rights movement, federal courts have consistently rejected those attempts. The contraception mandate, the ACLU and NAACP argue, addresses one of the last holdouts of discrimination in the workplace: sex disparities in the cost of health care, and the historical exclusion of coverage for health care unique to women.
Importantly, the ACLU and NAACP brief places the Affordable Care Act alongside another historic piece of federal civil rights legislation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, driving home the point that first and foremost the contraception mandate is about regulating employment benefits. In addition to furthering goals of economic equality and empowerment, the mandate helps dismantle outdated sex stereotypes by offering women the tools to decide whether and when to become mothers and rejecting cultural beliefs that women should either accept pregnancy or refrain from non-procreative sex. By tying these beliefs regarding the status and role of women in society to the manner in which the government regulates the workplace through anti-discrimination laws, the NAACP and ACLU drive home that women’s economic equality depends on dismantling Christian patriarchal structures, not further reinforcing them.
2. A ruling for Hobby Lobby would open the doors for broader workplace discrimination in the future.
With the ACLU and NAACP historical arguments on anti-civil rights forces trying to use the First Amendment to defeat civil rights gains as a backdrop, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund brief brings that argument to the present day and highlights the impact a ruling in favor of the challengers would have for the LGBT community as well as those living with HIV. Not surprisingly, the impact would be devastating.
Never before has the Supreme Court allowed a commercial business to ignore a regulation simply because it offends the religious beliefs of the business owners, the fund notes. While there are some laws already in place to protect LGBT persons and those with HIV from discrimination in the employment context, a ruling on behalf of the challengers would be an open invitation to re-litigate the issue as religious conservatives have long tried to use religious objections to justify discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or disability.
In fact, we’re already seeing that very thing play out, as conservative lawmakers in places like Kansas and Arizona consider legislation that would affirmatively grant the right of business owners to discriminate against LGBT persons on the basis of religious objection. And in New Mexico, a lawsuit against an Albuquerque couple who operate a commercial photography business and refused to photograph same-sex couples on the basis of their religious objection has already made its way before the Roberts Court, with the business owners asking the Supreme Court to grant them an exemption based on their religious objections to the state’s public accommodations law, which makes refusing service to anyone on the basis of their sex or sexual orientation illegal.
3. Centuries of corporate law will go up in smoke.
Sure, compared to civil rights history and law, corporate law is undeniably drier. But as a group of law professors argue, it is also undeniably at risk of being upended should the Roberts Court accept the basic proposition that corporations can take on the beliefs of their owners. The corporate and criminal law professors detail many key concepts of corporate law at risk, most notably the fact that shareholders/owners rely on the corporation’s separate existence from its shareholders/owners to shield them from personal liability. This corporate shield encourages investment and innovation, which helps markets generally, meaning that ultimately businesses have more to lose then gain in siding with Hobby Lobby.
Should the Court side with the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga plaintiffs, then it is practically inviting religious objections to any federal regulation. In fact, similar to the religious objections bubbling up in response to marriage equality, this anti-regulation for the sake of it argument is already apparent in the for-profit challenges to the contraception mandate. Take, for example, the Eden Foods case, in which the owner, in an interview with Salon, said he didn’t object to offering birth control to his employees so much as he objected to the federal government telling him to do anything. A broad ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could take that attitude and use it to challenge everything from tax laws to environmental protections—which is, of course, exactly the point.
The post Three Reasons to Uphold the Contraception Mandate That Don’t Involve Birth Control appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Legal Wrap is a weekly round-up of key legal reproductive rights and justice news.
It’s easy for conservatives’ state-level attacks on reproductive rights and the social safety net to monopolize our attention, but legislatures are only one front in that battle. The courts matter, and right now they matter a lot. That’s why the campaign to oppose Michael Boggs for the federal bench is important. Adele Stan has the latest on the coalition of progressive organizations leading this fight, and I explain here how the Boggs nomination has even advanced this far.
Cynthia Greenlee has this must-read piece on Darrin Manning and reproductive justice for young men of color.
An evangelical couple in Maine has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a recently passed buffer zone law in Portland.
A Pennsylvania woman is facing prosecution after ordering her daughter abortion-inducing pills online.
In Montana, a popular softball coach at a Catholic high school lost her contract because she also works at Planned Parenthood.
A new bill proposed in Iowa would allow women to sue their doctors for emotional distress if they later come to regret their abortion.
Since 2011, South Dakota lawmakers have spent about $170,000 in taxpayer money defending just one of the many anti-choice laws in the state.
Virginia officials will appeal a lower court’s ruling bringing marriage equality to the state. That’s despite the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder told state attorneys general that they have no obligation to defend same-sex marriage bans in their states.
Despite the fact that he says nothing from the bench, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas may be one of the most influential legal minds in the country. And that’s scary.
Here’s some better Supreme Court news: The Court turned away two separate requests by the National Rifle Association to loosen gun laws that restrict anyone under 21 from buying or carrying a handgun.
The Court also turned away Arizona’s Planned Parenthood funding ban, which means the Roberts Court has now twice let stand an appellate court decision blocking states’ attempts to strip the women’s health-care provider from Medicaid programs.
Good news! Massachusetts just enacted emergency regulations prohibiting the shackling of pregnant inmates.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, lawmakers introduced a statewide Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
Anti-contraception forces at the University of Notre Dame lost at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last week as the court refused to overturn an order shielding the university from complying with the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Imani Gandy has this excellent piece on the legal challenges to the mandate. She asks the simple, yet so far ellusive, question: Where are the women in these cases?
Speaking of the University of Notre Dame, RH Reality Check launched a new legal podcast this month, and the inaugural episode takes a look at Notre Dame’s legal challenge to the contraception mandate and the argument that corporations have religious rights. The podcast will run monthly and discuss the legal ins and outs of reproductive rights and justice issues, with a dash of commentary from me and Imani Gandy. Check it out!
Image: Georgia Policy / YouTube
The post Legal Wrap: Progressive Groups Increase Pressure on Judicial Nominations appeared first on RH Reality Check.
A decision due soon from the European Parliament could trigger a wave of legislative change about how sex work is policed in Europe. Following a debate scheduled Monday about a report submitted by UK politician Mary Honeyball, politicians from around Europe must decide Wednesday whether they should adopt her position and formally recommend that European states criminalize the act of buying sex.
Often referred to as the Swedish or the Nordic model, this criminalization approach is becoming an increasingly applauded policy—by everyone except sex workers and the people who work with them.
“Most societies who work with sex workers are against criminalizing the work. It’s a very ideological approach and not practical,” Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), told RH Reality Check. “But it’s the well-funded, politically connected state organizations that can be the loudest.”
In the weeks leading up to the European Parliament debate, the ICRSE has been trying to get the voices of sex workers in Europe heard in the hope that it will prevent politicians from adopting these recommendations. The group’s call for Honeyball’s report to be rejected has been signed by over 550 organizations, from those representing transgender and HIV/AIDS groups to the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Around 60 academics have also shown their support, criticizing the scientific quality of the report and arguing that many references cited by Honeyball have been refuted time and time again.
This is the latest development in a debate that has been going on in Europe for more than a decade. A law criminalizing the purchase—but not the sale—of sex was first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Although different countries vary over how they implement such a law, the “criminalization model” works by arresting or penalizing customers of sex workers. While some have argued this would reduce the demand for and supply of sex workers, as well as making them less subject to violence and abuse, in fact the result has been just the opposite, driving sex workers underground and making them more vulnerable.
Over the next decade, similar legislation was put in place in Norway and Iceland and is currently being pushed through the French parliament. In addition, it has been frequently referenced by politicians in other countries, including Scotland and England, as a potential model. The praise heaped on the Nordic model in Honeyball’s report repeats similar claims made by many politicians and police in Sweden and other European countries, such as France, celebrating the fact that it is legislation to tackle prostitution that doesn’t criminalize sex workers.
However, critics argue that because a law has to be broken in order for sex workers to work, by de facto they are perceived to be working in a criminal environment. According to groups representing sex workers, one of the effects this has is to reduce tolerance and increase stigma directed at sex workers.
“They say that these laws are about criminalizing the buyers of sex and not against sex workers themselves, but in reality in the street that does not work,” Stevenson said. He noted that in France, a week after a bill was approved by the national assembly that would introduce a €1,500 fine (about $2,065) against people who purchase sex, residents in one town rallied in the streets with signs, intending to drive sex workers out of town. “They could do that because the state agreed with them. Criminalizing sex work reinforces the stigma against it,” he said.
According to Stevenson, although the Swedish law acts under the guise of protecting sex workers, it’s actually an ideological position against prostitution and the people who work in that industry. He sees this reflected strongly in the attitude of the police concerning migrant sex workers.
“In Sweden, they can deport migrant prostitutes even though they are from countries in the European Union,” he said. “It’s OK for Swedish sex workers to be there, but if you’re a sex worker from Poland you get deported, even if you try to argue that it’s legal to work there as a European sex worker.”
This is legislatively backed up with the Swedish Aliens Act, which makes it illegal for foreigners to work in Sweden as sex workers, contradicting the assumption by international applauders, particularly pro-women groups, that the Swedish model is friendly to sex workers.
Advocates for criminalization also claim that it is a success because the number of sex workers has dropped in countries where it was introduced. However, a widely referenced 2010 Swedish government report, the Skarhed report, that claimed street prostitution had dropped has been refuted by academics who questioned the scientific rigor of its statistics and the fact that it ignored the longer ongoing trend of prostitutes moving off the streets and underground, which some researchers have recorded since the 1970s.
“The Skarhed report even ignores governmental reports” that provide opposing conclusions, May-Len Skilbrei, a professor at the University of Oslo, told RH Reality Check. “In this field, as in many, policy makers and implementers ignore what doesn’t fit their world view, and hype what does.” She also pointed out that there has been little research on the situation in Sweden in the first ten years, although this is now beginning to pick up.
In a 2008 report on prostitution in Sweden, professor Skilbrei also critiqued studies based on data drawn only from sex workers who had had contact with support services. Swedish police themselves have admitted in a press release that because much of the trade is conducted over the Internet, “none of the inspecting authorities have a complete picture of the scope as they are not engaged in continuous or structured reconnaissance.”
Perhaps even more important than the divisions in ideology and criticisms of the validity of scientific evidence, researchers, NGOs and, sex workers argue that criminalization negatively affects the physical well-being of sex workers.
“A major issue for me, the absolute bottom line, is the health and safety of sex workers,” Maggie O’Neill, a professor of criminology at Durham University in the UK, told RH Reality Check. “It’s this—the health and safety—that binds us together. I respect there are different ideological perspectives on this, but what does unite us is health and safety.”
Sex workers themselves have reported that this type of legislation creates heightened dangers. Interviews carried out with sex workers in Norway after the criminalization of the purchase of sex was introduced there found that sex workers consistently reported a change in customer base. “Nice” customers who stick to the correct boundaries are often law-abiding “average” people. “With criminalization many believe that fewer of this type of man buys sexual services,” a report by the organization Pro-Sentret notes.
The hope from pro-criminalization groups was that as the customer base narrows, it would drive sex workers away from the work. People who work with sex workers report that the reality is somewhat different. “What the police and campaigners like Honeyball don’t seem to realize is that if a sex worker hasn’t made enough money to pay for a room or whatever then they will just stay out longer,” said Stevenson. “If you’re on the street, you’re not going to go unless you have the money.”
Fewer opportunities to make money also can lead to an increase in taking risks. “Many people don’t know that sex workers choose clients,” said Stevenson. “If you get in a car with someone and you decide they are not safe, you can say no if you know that there will be someone else along in 15 minutes. But if you think that no other people are going to come by in the next half hour, you go with someone who you wouldn’t normally.”
The interviews carried out by Pro-Sentret also support the idea that risk taking has increased. “More and more of our users report that they take ‘trips’ without a condom,” the report notes, citing a drop in customers as the reason for this.
Increased health risks are a key reason why so many HIV and AIDS organizations are against criminalization. This includes the UNAIDS Advisory Groups on HIV and Sex Work, which in a 2011 update to a 2009 report stated that “states should move away from criminalizing sex work or activities associated with it,” including removing criminal penalties for the purchase and sale of sex.
“AIDS organizations are all saying that criminalizing sex work will increase the risk of HIV for sex workers. There is no understanding of this by pro-criminalization campaigners,” said Stevenson, pointing to the fact that in Honeyball’s report she mentions the risk of HIV for sex workers just once but fails to point out that HIV and AIDS organizations believe this risk becomes worse with criminalization. Among other criticisms, this misunderstanding is why so many of the signatories of the ICRSE petition against the Honeyball report are organizations who work with people living with HIV.
If the European Parliament decides to vote in Honeyball’s recommendations it won’t force countries to change their policies, but it will pressure them to revisit those policies and will give pro-criminalization groups much more leverage with politicians in their countries. Whatever the result on Wednesday, the future of sex work in Europe will become clearer, one way or another.
Image: WikiMedia Commons
The post Why the European Parliament Shouldn’t Criminalize Buying Sex appeared first on RH Reality Check.
Another attempt to remedy the sexual assault epidemic in the U.S. military was brought to a halt Monday when two different measures—one sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and another by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)—were denied preliminary votes after Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) insisted on tying the votes to a controversial measure on Iran.
All of the measures were crafted as amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to let the Iran measure go forward. This had the effect of shutting down a vote on whether to proceed to debate on the sexual assault measures, since neither had enough support to overcome a filibuster. Late in the afternoon, Reid sent out a tweet that laid the blame for the thwarted vote on Republicans.
The Iran measure, which has support from some Democrats, would have added the threat of additional economic sanctions to the already heavily sanctioned Iran if its government did not hold up its end of an agreement with the United States and other nations to restrict its development of nuclear material and technology to non-military applications. What makes it controversial is the potential to scuttle current diplomatic efforts being conducted by the Obama administration.
The Gillibrand measure (originally introduced as S. 1752), which would remove the adjudication of sexual assault and other serious crimes from the chain of command, currently has the support of some 54 senators—six shy of the 60 needed to overcome the current obstacle to moving forward to a floor debate.
Currently, if a member of the military who is the survivor of sexual assault by another member wishes to report the crime, the survivor must make the report to his or her commander, who gets to decide whether or not to bring the case to trial.
If the amendment moved forward to debate, supporters believe that the additional votes might be found among currently undecided senators.
“Nowhere else in America would we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted, except in the U.S. military,” Gillibrand said in speech on the Senate floor Monday night.
McCaskill’s amendment (last introduced as S. 1917) would not remove the adjudication and prosecution of sexual assault crimes from the chain of command, but instead seeks to prevent retaliation against those in the military who report a sexual assault by a fellow member, and to prevent a member’s military record from entering into a verdict.
Gillibrand and McCaskill have been at odds over how best to address the assault epidemic in the military. McCaskill is the lone Democratic woman in the Senate who opposes Gillibrand’s measure.
In June 2013, the Pentagon estimated that some 26,000 incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” took place in the armed forces at the hands of fellow military members, and reported that fewer than 3,400 of those incidents were reported.
Garrette Silverman, a spokesperson for Sen. Moran, told the Huffington Post’s Michael McAuliff in an email that Moran actually supports allowing votes on the Gillibrand and McCaskill measures, but objects to Reid deciding which proposed amendments to the NDAA get a vote.
The post Vote on Sexual Assault Measures Thwarted in Senate appeared first on RH Reality Check.
“Burque, I have one question for you: Se pudo?” Those were the first words I could manage to say to a crowd full of smiling New Mexican faces on November 19, as we received the joyful and shocking news that Albuquerque voters had defeated the harmful anti-abortion ballot measure by a ten-point margin.
Mamas hand-in-hand with their babies, young people jumping, and families holding closed fists in the air responded “Si se pudo, que viva la mujer!”
As a queer Xicana, and daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, the joy in my heart at the sight of families like mine who showed up in droves to defend our bodies, our lives, and our decisions was unmatched by anything else I’d ever felt.
This ballot measure was the first municipal referendum in the country aimed at restricting access to safe abortion care. Albuquerque is one of four cities across the country that is home to a clinic providing abortions past 20 weeks. The ballot sought to eliminate access to such abortions under any circumstance other than a direct threat to a pregnant woman’s life. If it had passed, the ordinance would have eliminated access to abortion care at and beyond 20 weeks across the entire Southern corridor of the United States.
We knew that attacks on access to abortion care in our city were part of a new strategy to restrict abortion access at the municipal level and that, if successful, the same tactics would be used in other cities and states. Early polling showed that the popular vote favored the ban by a wide margin. We faced a daunting task: Mobilizing voters in fewer than 12 weeks for a special election, just six weeks after a mayoral election. When we started out, a victory by more than ten points was unthinkable.
This incredible win is a testimony to the strength of local organizations that have been building a strong movement for justice in New Mexico for many years. These organizations were at the nexus of the formation of the Respect ABQ Women campaign, the New Mexican-led effort of allied organizations that came together and defeated the ballot measure. Organizations on the campaign’s steering committee provided the strategic direction for all campaign efforts. The groups included the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Southwest Women’s Options, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest Women’s Law Center.
From the beginning, the Respect ABQ Women campaign made the clear decision to prioritize the leadership of women of color. Much of this leadership came from Young Women United (YWU) and Strong Families New Mexico (SFNM), two reproductive justice organizations led by and accountable to women of color. Together, we played pivotal roles serving on the Respect ABQ Women campaign’s steering committee, fulfilling essential leadership positions, and implementing core parts of the campaign strategy.
YWU and SFNM decided early on that our goal in this campaign would be to move away from how short-term campaigns are usually run. Our model sought to ensure New Mexican leadership shaped and steered the campaign, shift the narrative on abortion, center the voices of those most affected, and garner the solidarity of national support and resources.
Leading With Local Infrastructure and Strategies
SFNM and YWU were clear that this campaign needed to be uniquely local, and uniquely New Mexican, to have any chance of succeeding. The Respect ABQ Women campaign came out of the pre-existing relationships between organizing and advocacy groups within the New Mexico Coalition for Choice, a longstanding coalition defending reproductive rights in New Mexico.
These relationships had been hard fought, coming from years of reproductive rights and health groups working alongside one another in their successful work to keep bills that would have restricted abortion access from ever leaving committees in the legislature. But this work has not been without challenge, and tensions had grown over the years when strategies and tactics would sometimes conflict.
Fortunately, a number of years ago, with the support of Strong Families, we worked actively with partners from the Coalition for Choice to address these challenges and develop a new way to work together, one that set the stage for our win this fall. This included clear agreements on how we would work together, and a commitment to prioritizing the perspectives of those most affected by our issues—particularly low-income women of color.
With our internal collaboration strengthened, and our external wins each year preventing at least six anti-abortion bills from moving through the legislative process, we were poised to take on the ballot initiative.
Shifting the Narrative on Abortion
YWU and SFNM are proud of the contributions we made to shape messages that reflected New Mexican values. While this ballot measure threatened access to abortion within and beyond the city of Albuquerque, the Respect ABQ Women campaign made a concerted effort to move framing of the issues beyond the polarizing “pro-life” vs. pro-choice language often used in national movements. We knew that language wouldn’t bring our communities out because it presented a falsely black-and-white portrayal of what are complex personal decisions about abortion.
Instead, the Respect ABQ Women campaign’s lead message held that “deeply personal and complex decisions about abortion should remain in the hands of women, families and their doctor without government interference.” This frame spoke directly to the real lives of women and families and provided an opportunity to respect the individual circumstances, faith traditions, and life challenges affecting women and families who face the decision to continue or end a pregnancy. This message acknowledged and embraced the complexity of abortion and created an opening for various communities to participate in the election.
Centering Those Most Affected
The primary goal of ballot measure campaigns is almost always to do “whatever it takes” to get the votes necessary for the win. This mentality often results in campaigns created in a bubble, isolated from long-term social change goals and disconnected from the larger political climate.
Campaigns to defeat anti-choice ballot measures are often reluctant to engage young people and communities of color because of widely held perceptions that these voters will not turn out or that they hold opposing views on abortion.
YWU and SFNM made sure the Respect ABQ Women Campaign would steer clear of tactics that would compromise or marginalize our communities, and instead in all our efforts made long-term organizational decisions to focus closely on those most affected.
For example, our message of abortion as a complex and personal decision was tailored specifically to reach communities of color—specifically speaking to the value our community places on respect for individual and family decisions. This also played out in decisions about what imagery to use, whose faces should represent the campaign, and how to reach folks where they were at in terms of their feelings about abortion. The campaign allowed our leadership, alongside other groups led by women of color, to guide the strategies that brought our community into the discussion. We also worked with Dolores Huerta, a well-respected New Mexican and Chicana activist—another example of how we focused on reaching the communities we felt needed to be at the center of the campaign.
YWU led the integration of art and imagery into the communications strategy and maintained a constant social media presence for the campaign reflecting the lived experiences of our communities. We did this by working with local photographers and designers to create a photo campaign centered on the strength of Albuquerque families and neighborhoods standing against the ban. YWU centered the voices of Albuquerque’s communities by leading the Spanish-language efforts of the Respect ABQ Women Campaign.
We were so inspired by the solidarity of Dolores Huerta, who complemented our work on the ground knocking on doors, and leveraging her reputation as a trusted community leader to build an intergenerational collaboration with Young Women United. With her help, YWU developed radio ads with us in English and Spanish to engage our Latina/o communities in this conversation.
In the Field
For decades, many in the reproductive rights movement have labeled Latina/o and Hispanic communities as inherently conservative and have chosen to ignore communities of color in civic engagement efforts.
Strong Families New Mexico led a field strategy that focused on neighborhoods that were predominantly people of color. Phone banks and canvassing hosted by SFNM and YWU not only reached out to young people, queer and trans* communities, and communities of color, but also created a welcoming space for volunteers who were active in progressive movements but had not previously worked on the issue of abortion. SFNM and YWU managed more than 153 volunteers, nearly 40 percent of Respect ABQ Women’s total volunteer base. We used this as an opportunity to engage our communities to speak about reproductive justice, the need to defeat anti-abortion measures, and the need to build their capacity to mobilize their own communities for change. Of the 153 volunteers we engaged, nearly half were people of color, a significant portion were young people, 20 percent were men (many were young men of color), and more than 30 percent were LGBTQ.
Garnering National Solidarity and Resources
The strategic direction of the Respect ABQ Women campaign was supported by the solidarity of national organizations and resources. Effective national-local partnerships are going to be key to winning other local and state-level battles, and we’re proud to be creating a model for how to do that in a way that builds power and respects local expertise.
Early on, for example, Strong Families held a joint press conference with national reproductive justice leaders from Black, Latina, and Asian communities delivering a message of solidarity for Respect ABQ Women and connecting the local campaign to other attacks across the country.
Organizations like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Advocates for Youth also stood in solidarity with New Mexican women of color leadership by supporting radio ads developed by YWU to engage Latina/o communities.
For YWU and SFNM, the win was one moment in time in the effort to build a larger vision of reproductive justice. We know that the work doesn’t end here. Although this election is over, we are committed to continued mobilization of our communities and the resources we built during the campaign to increase access to the rights, resources, and recognition that all people and families need to thrive. While this campaign was a true testament to New Mexico’s leadership, it serves as a learning moment for our reproductive justice work. We learned that we can win if we build local leadership, while tapping national resources, focusing on those most affected, and shifting the abortion narrative.
As I came off the stage on election night, my cheeks rattling with adrenaline and emotion, I felt a soft hand squeeze mine in solidarity. Dolores Huerta, a woman who has fought many battles and celebrated numerous victories in her time, held my hand and whispered into my ear, “Gracias, our communities really needed this.”
Young Women United is a reproductive justice organizing project by and for young women of color in New Mexico working to ensure all people have the resources necessary to make real decisions about their bodies and lives. YWU works with women of color ages 13 to 35 to advance an intersectional vision of reproductive justice.
Strong Families New Mexico is the first state-based action site of the National Strong Families Initiative, staffed by Forward Together. Strong Families nationally is home to more than 120 organizations across the country that are changing the way we think, feel, and act on behalf of families. A key part of Forward Together’s movement-building model is to partner with strong, local organizations, so that the local is lifted to influence the national agenda. SFNM is building a network of organizations across the state that can grow a broader social justice movement in New Mexico.
Image: Young Women United / YouTube
The post We Respected Albuquerque Women and Won: Lessons Learned From Albuquerque appeared first on RH Reality Check.
A state senate committee in Georgia voted Thursday to approve a bill that would ban many health insurance plans from covering abortion care except in a narrowly defined “medical emergency.”
The bill, SB 98, would make Georgia the 25th state to ban insurance coverage of abortion on the health exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act. (That number includes Michigan, where such a ban has passed but has not yet gone into effect.) It would also prevent Georgia’s more than 600,000 state employees from accessing insurance coverage for abortion. More than 100,000 Georgians are already enrolled in health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Georgia state employees are already forbidden from accessing insurance coverage of abortion care, but the ban is an administrative one that the state health board pushed through last year after a similar bill failed to gain enough votes to pass the legislature. SB 98 would codify that ban into law, and would only marginally expand the exceptions. Currently, state employees can only receive coverage for life-saving abortions; the new law would allow either state employees or women purchasing insurance on the exchanges to get coverage if an abortion prevents the “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
“It’s a health exception so narrow that it’s practically nonexistent,” Amanda Allen, state legislative counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told RH Reality Check. The exception, Allen said, only covers immediate threats to a woman’s health, not complications from health conditions. A woman would not be covered, and face prohibitive costs, if she needed an abortion to start chemotherapy, to avoid exacerbating a heart condition, or to protect her mental health.
This narrow definition of “medical emergency” was also used in Georgia’s 20-week abortion ban, which is currently blocked by courts, and shows up frequently in so-called health exceptions to other restrictive abortion laws around the country.
Bans on insurance coverage of abortion, reproductive rights advocates say, are a common anti-choice strategy to undermine abortion access in a piecemeal fashion.
“We know that state politicians want abortion to be illegal, and they aren’t always able to do it outright,” Gretchen Borchelt, director of state reproductive health-care policy at the National Women’s Law Center, told RH Reality Check. ”So what they are doing is pushing restrictions that make abortion more unaffordable, or interfere with a woman’s ability to get access to abortion.” Borchelt noted that banning abortion coverage on the exchanges is also one of many attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
Abortion insurance bans gained national attention late last year when Michigan passed a law that opponents called “rape insurance,” because it bans all insurance coverage of abortions, including in cases of rape or incest, unless a woman purchases an additional insurance rider. Allen called the proposed Georgia insurance ban “slightly less extreme” than Michigan’s; Michigan’s is one of the most extreme laws in the nation. Like Michigan’s ban, the Georgia ban would not affect all private insurers, and it would provide no exceptions for rape or incest (it would not provide an option to purchase additional coverage for such cases). Unlike Michigan’s, the Georgia bill would provide at least a marginal health exception.
Image: Healthcare via Shutterstock
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