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Report: Minimum Wage Hike Would Save Federal Government $7.6 Billion Annually

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 13:56

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would save millions in spending on public assistance programs, according to a report released Thursday.

The report was unveiled just as low-wage Walmart workers and activists with the “Fight for 15” movement took the streets in New York City and Washington, D.C. to protest poverty wages and demand a raise to a living wage of $15 per hour.

The report and the protests had a common theme: Bosses aren’t paying their fair share, leaving full-time workers to rely on government assistance to get by, and taxpayers foot the bill.

The report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that because businesses today are effectively paying workers 25 percent less than they did in the 1960s, government has had to take up the slack to help reduce poverty, effectively shifting a financial burden from the private sector to the taxpaying public. 

A raise in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, as has been proposed by Congressional Democrats but blocked by Republicans, would allow nearly 2 million people to get off of public assistance and save $7.6 billion annually, according to the report.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It hasn’t kept up with inflation, which makes the dollar worth less over time, but more importantly it hasn’t kept up with average wages or rising productivity.

If the minimum wage had grown as much as the average wage, it would be $10.89 by now, slightly more than Democrats and the EPI report authors are currently pushing for.

If it had grown as much as productivity, or how much we can produce on average from an hour’s worth of work, the minimum wage would be more than $18 per hour, well above what “Fight For 15” activists are pushing for.

The report’s author, David Cooper, told reporters on Thursday that the $7.6 billion savings figure is actually a conservative estimate.

Cooper told RH Reality Check that this report doesn’t look into exactly how much more money workers would have in their pockets overall, given that they would get less money in public assistance benefits as their wages rise.

But since public assistance programs are designed to gradually phase out as workers earn more, workers would still experience a net gain if they saw a raise resulting from an increased minimum wage.

Women and people of color are disproportionately represented among low-wage workers. Today’s report doesn’t go into details about race and gender, Cooper said, but those numbers will be out in a subsequent report.

One-fifth of workers would get a raise if the minimum wage were lifted to $10.10 per hour, the report says. About half of all public assistance dollars go to workers who currently make less than $10.10, and about half of workers who make less than $10.10 receive some public assistance. Every dollar in rising wages means 24 cents of savings in safety net spending, according to the report.

The $7.6 billion in savings on public assistance programs could go to federal expenditures like the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults or to creating jobs and improving infrastructure by building and improving roads, bridges, and schools, Cooper said.

“The bottom line is, that’s money that has been acting as a subsidy to low-wage employers who arguably haven’t been doing their fair share in the social contract—the understanding that in American society, if you work hard, you should be paid enough to make ends meet,” Cooper said.

Image: a katz /

The post Report: Minimum Wage Hike Would Save Federal Government $7.6 Billion Annually appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Women’s Rights Groups Mount Online Offensive in Colorado’s ‘Personhood’ Battle

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 13:40

When organizations opposing a “personhood” amendment on the Colorado ballot were devising their strategy to defeat the measure, they focused their attention not just on their home turf, but on a national audience.

“The idea was to have people outside of Colorado realize we’re all in this together, because what happens in Colorado could happen in your state or your town next year,” said Jen Caltrider, digital director for ProgressNow Colorado Education. “We wanted to have people talking about Colorado’s personhood amendment at the national level, and then for that conversation to reach back into Colorado.”

With this as their goal, Caltrider and other organizers built a fundraising campaign around an online video titled “Help Colorado Say No to Personhood.” The video begins with a news-style narration describing Colorado as “ground zero in the fight for women’s rights.”

The web-based campaign against the amendment is a move away from the passive approach pro-choice advocates have taken online during in this electoral fight.

“Personhood USA, the national leader in the movement to ban all abortion in the United States is based right here in Colorado,” the narrator continues. “Every two years, they ask Colorado voters to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape and incest, and many common forms of birth control. They’ve attempted these same drastic abortion bans in at least 12 other states. … They claim they would protect unborn human beings. What they would really do is give more rights to a fertilized egg than the mother herself.”

The video features women saying “No means no,” and offering reasons to oppose the personhood amendment, which would expand the definition of a “person” in Colorado’s criminal code and wrongful death statutes to include “unborn human beings,” conferring them with full legal rights.

“What happens here determines what happens in your city, in your state; determines what happens all across the country,” the video’s narrator says. “It is going to take all of us, standing strong, to put an end to the attacks on our rights.”

A landing screen directs viewers to an IndieGoGo donation page, which has raised $25,000 toward the campaign goal of $40,000, with donations from across the country and world.

The money will be used for a “smart digital campaign in Colorado as people are getting their ballots,” Caltrider said.

In an email to RH Reality Check, A Voice for Brady spokesperson Jennifer Mason disputed the claims made in the video, pointing to a USA Today analysis stating that the impacts of vague personhood measures, if passed, should not be considered definite because they’d have to be decided by the courts. However, that analysis did not dispute the potential impacts of the amendment, as outlined by opponents of the measure.

Mason’s campaign has its own video, telling its story of Heather Surovik’s loss of her 8-month-old fetus, which she’d named Brady, in 2012 crash when her car was struck by a drunk driver. Surovik survived the crash and talks about the tragedy at press events and legislative hearings and now is a champion of the pro-Amendment 67 campaign along with leaders of Personhood USA.

During the Voice for Brady video, Surovik says, “The law says that Brady wasn’t a person. Brady was eight pounds two ounces. Brady was a person. His life was worth defending.”

Colorado has a law, called the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, which allows prosecutors to bring charges for recklessly terminating a pregnancy, resulting in jail time for the perpetrator.

Murder charges cannot be filed because the law specifically does not “confer personhood, or any rights associated with that status, on a human being at any time prior to live birth.” Thus, no fetus, even at an advanced stage, can be considered a victim of a reckless act, like the one Surovik endured.

To raise awareness of the arguments against Amendment 67 and to drive more people to donate, Caltrider posted a piece on the Huffington Post titled “Hello America, It’s Me, Colorado,” which got more than 100,000 shares and 375,000 “likes” on Facebook.

“After all the attacks on women over the past years, we’re sensitive,” said Caltrider, offering her view on why the campaign has been successful. “We’re exhausted by it. Enough already. But you have to be in constant battle mode.”

“We’ve gotten comments like, ‘I thought Colorado was more progressive; I’m surprised something as crazy conservative could happen there,’” Caltrider told RH Reality Check. “There’s lots of complacency about it here in Colorado. People know it’s been on the ballot before, but they don’t understand that it’s so much more deceptive this year.”

Caltrider points to the text voters will see on their November ballot: “Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution protecting pregnant women and unborn children by defining ‘person’ and ‘child’ in the Colorado criminal code and the Colorado wrongful death act to include unborn human beings?”

Image: ProgressNowColorado/Youtube

The post Women’s Rights Groups Mount Online Offensive in Colorado’s ‘Personhood’ Battle appeared first on RH Reality Check.

The goal of ballot measures in Colorado, North Dakota, and Tennessee is to ban a...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 12:00
The goal of ballot measures in Colorado, North Dakota, and Tennessee is to ban abortion, restrict access to contraception, and put politicians between women and their doctors.

The Tricky Ways Legal Abortion Is Being Threatened In 3 States
On Nov. 4, as voters across the U.S. head to the ballot box, Americans in three states will be voting on legislation that could seriously undermine access to legal abortion. More restrictions on abortion were passed between 2011 and 2013 than in t...

Civil Rights Groups Appeal Dismissal of Ethics Complaint Against Judge Edith Jones

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 10:57

A panel of federal judges in Washington D.C. dismissed an ethics complaint against Edith Jones of the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, finding there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude Jones had publicly made discriminatory statements and improperly discussed pending death penalty cases.

A coalition of civil rights organizations filed the misconduct complaint against Jones in June 2013 after Jones delivered a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Federal Death Penalty Review.” During that lecture, Jones allegedly made a series of comments that demonstrated bias against minorities and individuals with disabilities.

Some of those comments included claims that certain “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime” and are “prone to commit acts of violence” including more violent and “heinous” crimes and that Mexicans would prefer to be on death row in the United States than serving prison terms in their native country, according to the complaint.

Jones allegedly accused defendants who raise claims of “mental retardation” of abusing the system and called claims the death penalty is racist or arbitrary a “red herring.”

The complaint also alleged Jones improperly told another federal judge to “shut up” during a court hearing.

According to the panel of judges, however, even though Jones admitted to making many of the statements detailed in the ethics complaint, that conduct did not amount to judicial misconduct.

“It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are ‘disproportionately’ involved in certain crimes and ‘disproportionately’ present in federal prisons,” the panel said. “But we must consider Judge Jones’ comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are ‘prone to commit’ such crimes. In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial.”

The three-member panel concluded that the evidence showed Jones used the term “red herring” when expressing her view that a challenge to the death penalty on the ground that “it is administered in a racially discriminatory manner is nonviable.” In light of Supreme Court precedents, the panel concluded “we again cannot find that such a view indicates improper bias or misconduct.”

The panel of judges dismissed the complaint against Jones in August but did not make the order publicly available until Wednesday, and only after civil rights groups announced they were appealing the decision to the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The judges investigating the allegations against Jones failed to interview student witnesses and discounted affidavits filed shortly after Jones’ speech, according to the appeal.

“As throughout the Report, the purported ‘weighing of the evidence’ amounted to no more than accepting what Judge Jones said and rejecting all contradictory evidence,” the appeal states. “The Complainants’ sworn evidence made clear that Judge Jones’s remarks damaged attendees’ trust and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. If the situation is not corrected through the present appeal, many future litigants will have exactly the same reaction.”

Image: The Richard Fowler Show/Youtube

The post Civil Rights Groups Appeal Dismissal of Ethics Complaint Against Judge Edith Jones appeared first on RH Reality Check.

When you hear the truth about who’s backing the anti-choice candidate Senate can...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 09:37
When you hear the truth about who’s backing the anti-choice candidate Senate candidate in Iowa, you’ll be appalled.

Extreme Anti-Choice Group SBA List Supports Joni Ernst

NARAL Pro-Choice America released this new 60-second television ad tying Senate candidate Joni Ernst to the extreme right-wing Susan B. Anthony List politica...

#FergusonLive: The End of Suffering Silently

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 09:13

Read more of our coverage related to recent events in Ferguson here.

America is supposed to be the land of the free. Recent events have shown us that while it isn’t free for all, it is at least still the home of the brave.

Thousands of activists gathered in Ferguson, Missouri, October 10-13, to show the world they will not be silenced, unless they choose silence as a weapon. At one point during the “weekend of resistance”—a direct response to the slaying of Michael Brown on August 9, and other Black men across the country in recent months, at the hands of law enforcement—people lay silently in chalk outlines on the road, fists raised.

Back in August, Ferguson residents made a simple demand: Arrest Brown’s killer, police officer Darren Wilson. That was it. Just get the wheels of justice turning. In the intervening weeks, the world learned Wilson didn’t even bother turning in an incident report. We watched the Ferguson police defy the Justice Department and refuse to wear their name badges. But the people in Ferguson were not only watching a failed justice system—they were adding Brown’s name to a long list of police shooting victims and getting angry, and rightly so.

To this end, the organizers of Ferguson October’s “weekend of resistance,” including Hands Up United, the Organization for Black Struggle, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment invited the world to join in protesting not just one shooting of one man, but to protest the brutal struggle of being Black in America. Mike Brown’s name, like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and John Crawford, has come to represent both a case of police brutality and hope. It means countless indignities and the routine violation of rights that white people take for granted, and also refusing to accept the status quo. Thus, Ferguson October marks the gathering of a thousand voices and the end of suffering silently.

That’s what happened this weekend in Ferguson. Protesters shut down at least three Walmarts on behalf of John Crawford, whom police killed in Ohio in August for carrying a toy weapon in a state where he was legally allowed to carry a real one. Ferguson protesters carried a mirrored casket through the streets so that every one of the people lining the sidewalks could bear witness to the fact that they, too, might be shot down. They used provocative language and tactics, and refused to apologize. They refused to disperse, choosing instead to be arrested in acts of civil disobedience.

The weekend was rainy, and tense. Media coverage focused heavily on dissent within the protesting community, painting inevitable generational divides as something new and different instead of history repeating itself. MSNBC talked about how young people “resorted to profanity,” as though a young Black man in St. Louis protesting the treatment of Mike Brown on the heels of the killing of Vonderitt Myers (another Black teen shot in south St. Louis on the eve of the protests) didn’t have cause to scream obscenities to the heavens and demand more than he is being given.

There’s one young man (dubbed Low Key by his friends because, they say, he has more energy than a hundred toddlers put together) who spoke on camera months ago about his motivations. His arm was wounded and swelling from a rubber bullet that police had fired at him. “Y’all gotta do what’s right on both sides of the law,” he said. He pointed out that it didn’t matter really how he reacted, because he had no reason to think police would protect him. “If y’all didn’t notice, we’re protecting ourselves,” he said. This past weekend, he marched. He marched for the same reasons he marched the very first weekend: because he is young and Black, and he knows that it’s his life and future on the line. He has been marching every night for months, and he will not soon forget the lessons he has been learning from the police. He has become a leader, at the age of 15. He is determined to make his future one in which he does not need to fear that those responsible for protecting him will be his killers. This weekend, he was accompanied by the support of thousands.

But even their nonviolent approach was met with violence from other community members and the police. At a St. Louis Rams game on Monday night, people who unfurled a banner that said “Black Lives Matter” had to face down overtly racist football fans, who not only screamed epithets at them for daring to exist while football was happening, but actually started throwing punches. One man who got hit, Elon James White of This Week in Blackness, credits other protesters for making sure he didn’t get into a fight. That White and his fellow protesters knew better than to take the bait, that they had to collectively rise above, that he was hit for nothing more than existing in a space, says everything you need to know about why thousands of people showed up to support Ferguson October.

When residents of Ferguson speak, whether in person or on social media, they talk about dignity. It comes in many shades, sometimes tinged with grief or anger or hope, but it always comes down to dignity. They speak of what it means to know that the more melanin your skin contains, the fewer rights you are afforded. They talk about their right to live, fall in love, and have babies who will not one day be killed for walking down the street when the wrong police officer happens by. They speak with longing and grief about rights that the vast majority of Americans simply take for granted.

For those rights, and more, they protest. It is not a past tense. The weekend of action is over, but DeRay and Netta will still put out the newsletter. Lost Voices will still march.

This weekend saw hundreds of arrests, some for no reason and some for reasons that were later proven impossible, like the time police said people were throwing rocks but no footage could be found, despite the fact that dozens of cameras were rolling and the police themselves were supposed to be wearing body cameras.

James Baldwin once said, “It comes as a great shock … to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance … has not pledged allegiance to you.” This weekend, knowing that many people would not understand, a few protesters burned flags in Ferguson. The reaction was immediate; some people who said they were on the side of the protesters thought it was a rude tactic, maybe a bridge too far.

We require politeness from our oppressed in America. Workers must thank their employers for graciously hiring them rather than simply upholding their contract. Women must gracefully duck away from sexual harassment rather than accuse a man of unacceptable advances. And people of color, particularly Black people, must smile and thank police officers for not killing them. The people in Ferguson, while they were more respectful than the city’s police force might have deserved, refused to be ignored this weekend. They are the reason that while we might not be able to claim that America is the land of the free, it is most definitely still the home of the brave.

Published in partnership with We Act Radio.

Image: FergusonLive/Youtube

The post #FergusonLive: The End of Suffering Silently appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Pregnant Texans Are Being Charged With Crimes That Don’t Exist

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 08:49

The West Texas media loves to show her mugshot—the overhead fluorescent lighting, the height hatch marks on the cinderblock wall behind her disheveled hair, all filtered through the grainy colors and low-resolution pixels of the jailhouse camera. Together, these elements scream the words that news anchors and police beat reporters don’t even need to use: bad mommy.

She is Christene Beam. Or Jennifer Silva. Or Juanita Elkins. Or Talisha Redic. Or Tiffany Rios. And she has been charged with endangering her “unborn child” for taking drugs while pregnant.

Their faces make the newspaper or the 9 p.m. cable broadcast, set alongside a damning headline. Something with a nice jumble of fear-inducing keywords: “pregnant,” “mother,” “meth,” “cocaine,” “unborn,” or “baby.”

Then, after their trial-by-media, they mostly disappear. Perhaps viewers and readers imagine them in jail, serving hard time for their moral failures as women and mothers living with substance addiction.

The thing is, what they’ve done isn’t actually illegal in Texas.


Protected Under the Law?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have “fetal homicide” laws on the books that increase penalties for crimes committed against pregnant people and the embryo or fetus inside them. Texas’ law, signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003, is one of the broadest in the country. It defines an individual as “a human being who is alive, including an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth,” meaning that, for example, a drunk driver who kills a pregnant person can be charged with a crime against two separate people.

But the Texas law also makes an important exception: A pregnant person cannot be charged with injury to their own fetus, and neither can a doctor performing legal abortion care with “requisite consent.” This exception, nestled into the 2003 modification of the Texas Penal Code, ensures that a crime “does not apply to conduct charged as having been committed against an individual who is an unborn child” if said conduct is “committed by the mother of the unborn child.”

This provision should shield pregnant people from accusations of child endangerment toward their own embryos or fetuses. In fact, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott effectively confirmed in a 2005 ruling that the law does provide this shield; the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also issued an opinion on the matter in 2006, overturning the conviction of two Texas women who had been sentenced to jail for taking drugs during their pregnancies.

But that hasn’t stopped prosecutors in the vast, largely rural swath of the state west of Interstate Highway 35 from charging women with reckless child endangerment for ingesting controlled substances while pregnant. And inevitably, these allegations are accompanied by the over-saturated mugshots and scandalized copy that have become the hallmark of local media reports.

Attorney Farah Diaz-Tello, an Austin native who works for the New York-based watchdog organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), keeps an eye on the news for these stories and then intervenes whenever she can.

“The media loves ‘Bad meth mom arrested!’” Diaz-Tello told RH Reality Check. “That’s how we find out.”

Diaz-Tello, who works pro bono, then reaches out to the lawyers who handle these cases, nearly always court-appointed, overburdened public defenders who might not realize that their clients have been wrongfully charged with a non-crime.

“The law is pretty clear,” she said. “Theoretically, the fact that the law doesn’t permit that charge means it shouldn’t be brought.”

Police and prosecutors, though, nevertheless pursue these cases. The child endangerment statute casts a wide net: The accused may have “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly or with criminal negligence, by act or omission” done something to place “a child younger than 15 in imminent danger of death, bodily injury, or physical or mental impairment.” As a state jail felony, it carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and between 180 days and two years of imprisonment.

In some instances, babies test positive for drugs soon after they’re born, and doctors and hospitals, in an attempt to comply with another Texas law about reporting babies “born addicted,” pass on their findings to Child Protective Services or local law enforcement officials. In others, ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends file reports with police, CPS, or even directly with prosecutors—sometimes from hundreds of miles away—alleging that their partners have endangered their children while pregnant.

The upshot? District attorneys and cops get to look tough on drug crime. Anti-choice lobbyists and lawmakers get to brag about their compassion for the unborn. And the public gets to sneer and jeer at “bad mommy” mugshots. What rarely gets reported, however, is that after the initial allegations make the evening news, these erroneous endangerment charges don’t stick, thanks to smart public defenders and reproductive rights lawyers like Diaz-Tello.

But dodging the child endangerment charge doesn’t necessarily mean that these women, or their families, can walk away scot-free. Instead, mothers are nearly always persuaded to plead guilty to possession or other drug-related offenses, which often carry heftier penalties of incarceration; judges may take the child endangerment charges into consideration as well.

Pregnant women, particularly those with substance addiction, don’t tend to fare well in the heavily privatized Texas jail and prison system. Earlier this summer, a San Antonio woman was denied the medical methadone treatment she needed to maintain a healthy pregnancy when she was jailed in Guadalupe County. It wasn’t until she reached out to NAPW for intervention—and pleaded with institutional officials and her parole board—that she was released to home monitoring, where she could continue her drug treatment program. Research suggests, too, that alternatives to incarceration, such as substance abuse rehabilitation programs, are less expensive for taxpayers and more effective at reducing recidivism.

And if women are charged after their babies are born, or if they have other children, those kids will often be funneled into Texas’ overtaxed foster care program, especially if there are no family members available to take on the responsibilities of child care. Lawmakers have continuously attempted to privatize this underfunded state agency, even as children die under the supervision of the supposedly superior corporations.

Furthermore, university research suggests that kids whose mothers are incarcerated “may be more likely to experience a disruption in the caregiving environment” compared to those whose fathers are incarcerated, potentially putting those “children at higher risk for insecure or disrupted attachment relationships,” which could “compromise children’s health and development.”

Still, one West Texas prosecutor told RH Reality Check that he believes incarceration is the best solution when pregnant Texans use drugs.

Joel Wilks, a Taylor County assistant district attorney in Abilene who brought a child endangerment charge against a pregnant woman named Juanita Elkins in 2012, told RH Reality Check that he would have liked to put Elkins in prison on the charges, but Texas’ abortion-exemption statute got in the way.

“We were kinda screwed on that deal,” he said. While Wilks believes “there’s no easy solution” in these cases, he said “there’s a deterrence factor” in being able to prosecute pregnant people for ingesting controlled substances, and an opportunity for “retribution.”

Elkins was one of at least two Taylor County women arrested for using drugs while pregnant who have recently faced the state jail felony-level punishment for child endangerment. Elkins was arrested under this statute in 2012; the other woman, Jennifer Silva, was eventually charged the same year after originally testing positive for methamphetamine when she gave birth in 2009.

The endangerment charges against both women were ultimately dropped after Diaz-Tello cold-called their public defenders and helped pass on legal arguments that convinced reluctant prosecutors, including Wilks, to dismiss the cases.

“The beneficial thing about hearing from [NAPW] out of the blue was we didn’t have to go looking for that information,” recalled Kory Robinson, the Abilene criminal defense lawyer who was appointed to defend Silva in 2012. At the time, he had already considered looking at the statute of limitations on Silva’s case due to the length of time between her original drug test and her arrest, but Diaz-Tello helped shore up his case against the legality of bringing the endangerment charges in the first place.

Robinson remembers presenting his case to Taylor County assistant district attorney Dan Joiner, who “got very upset,” he said, throwing up his hands and storming out of their meeting. But two weeks later, in October 2012, Joiner—”a very good, fair guy,” in Robinson’s estimation—dismissed Silva’s endangerment charges. According to the Abilene Reporter-News, Silva no longer has custody of her child.

Less than six months later in the same jurisdiction, assistant district attorney Wilks dropped similar charges against Elkins.

Wilks told RH Reality Check he wanted to prosecute Elkins on charges of drug possession with intent to distribute, with endangerment charges tacked on “for punishment.”

Ultimately, his plan didn’t work. Wilks dropped the endangerment charges, and Elkins pleaded guilty to drug charges in exchange for ten years of probation.

“In some ways, prison gets a bad rap,” Wilks continued, though he conceded that it’s a “tough call.” He thinks incarceration would have helped Elkins and women like her, even if it means turning children over to foster care.

“Prison does keep you away from drugs and stuff,” said Wilks, who noted that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas state prisons and jails, offers a special program for pregnant inmates. (The availability of similar opportunities is varied at county jails, which are generally privatized.) “I think [incarceration] does have a rehabilitation effect,” he said.

Diaz-Tello sees it very differently. She said that if prosecutors had gotten their way, Elkins could have pleaded guilty “to a crime that doesn’t exist,” potentially setting a legal precedent that could inspire the Texas legislature to amend the existing penal code or give courts room to make attempts at reinterpreting the law—ones that could threaten pregnant people’s authority over their own bodies.

Left With No Option

As legislators and law enforcement officials move to toughen fetal homicide laws throughout the country, reproductive rights supporters have grown increasingly nervous at the possibility of these laws affording a kind of legal “personhood” to fetuses that may contradict the rights of pregnant people.

Some states, for example, have passed fetal homicide laws ostensibly meant to target criminal doctors like Kermit Gosnell, though evidence collected by RH Reality Check last year suggests that Gosnell, a rogue provider who preyed on low-income women with no access to safe abortion care, was an extreme outlier. Instead, a study conducted by NAPW found that the provisions often give law enforcement officials room to hold pregnant people “legally liable for the outcome of their pregnancies.”

Laws of this kind that don’t carefully provide exceptions removing pregnant people from being charged with harm to their own fetuses could, if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, allow states to prosecute individuals for trying to end their own pregnancies.

In Texas, noted Abilene prosecutor Wilks, “we have very pro-unborn protections as far as DWIs” and other crimes committed against pregnant people.

“But,” he continued, “to make an abortion legal, we have to make some exceptions to that as far as the actions of the mother or a medical professional acting on behalf of the mother.”

Wilks acknowledges that rewriting the Texas Penal Code to enable prosecutors like him to put substance-addicted mothers in prison—but still preserve the overall right to legal abortion—would be a difficult endeavor.

“You could write it a little better, say if your intent is to terminate the life of the fetus then you’re covered,” Wilks mused, suggesting that the law could be clarified to reflect whether an offender was trying to specifically end their pregnancy or whether they had used a substance that happened to result in fetal harm. “But then what do you do? You get somebody who said, ‘I can’t afford an abortion, so I thought I’d try to have a spontaneous abortion by smoking meth.’”

Wilks perhaps inadvertently hit on something that’s been worrying Diaz-Tello ever since she traveled back home to Austin last summer to protest Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, HB 2. In a state where lawmakers have taken guaranteed access to legal abortion care out of the hands of all but the wealthiest Texans, she said, “carrying a pregnancy to term is not always a choice.”

Just two years ago, Texans who live along the western Interstate-20 corridor—in Abilene, Midland, and Odessa—had access to legal abortion care nearby at a handful of Planned Parenthood facilities dotting the windy West Texas landscape. Then, in 2011, the state of Texas slashed family planning funds and ended all public funding of Planned Parenthood, forcing dozens of clinics to close.

Rural areas like the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas were the hardest hit. All legal abortion facilities in the West Texas triangle between El Paso, San Antonio, and Fort Worth closed their doors or stopped providing abortion care.

Then came HB 2, which, in part, requires all abortion facilities to operate as hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers. Earlier this month, a Fifth Circuit Court ruling closed all but eight Texas abortion clinics when it allowed HB 2 to go into full effect. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court granted abortion providers a temporary reprieve from the law; as of October 15, eight clinics had been able to reopen, bringing the total number of legal abortion providers in Texas up to 16.

But because of these court rulings, access to legal abortion care can change overnight in Texas. If federal courts allow HB 2 to go back into effect—and evidence suggests that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals would like to see it so—the only legal abortion providers that will remain in Texas will be located in Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. The wealthiest West Texans might be able to drive or fly hundreds of miles round-trip to those cities, or to New Mexico. Others might try, as Wilks speculated, to end their pregnancies by other means, risking legal ramifications in the process.

“That’s what happens when you can’t terminate a pregnancy when you want to do so,” said Diaz-Tello. She says that by bringing child endangerment charges against pregnant substance users, the state is effectively saying that “by being a person who is an addict and pregnant, you have some sort of heightened obligation to the state [to preserve fetal life], which is answerable by a prison term.”

Rather than offering substance-addicted pregnant Texans abortion care if they choose—thus circumventing the child endangerment issue—or rehab in their communities, however, officials instead incarcerate them, said Diaz-Tello. This, she noted, could push more marginalized people into a criminal justice system that she described as “broken beyond belief.”

Diaz-Tello is far less optimistic than Wilks about the benefits of incarcerating mothers of young children. She says that it can be difficult to win over hearts and minds, even in the pro-choice and reproductive justice communities, when she talks about people who struggle with substance addiction. However, she points out, the charges these women face are potentially a harbinger of broader restrictions to come.

“Even if people don’t care about the lives of people who are addicted,” said Diaz-Tello, “I hope that they would be able to see that the prosecution of drug-using women are usually just the first volley in going after the most vulnerable, most marginalized population, to build precedent, so that they can go against people who look more like them.”

In other words, attempts to criminalize pregnancy in Texas could not only break up families by forcing pregnant women into prisons and children into foster care; they could be the starting point for a new strike on reproductive rights across the state.

The Threat of Fetal “Personhood”

Such creeping attacks on choice are already beginning to emerge elsewhere. In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers became the first in the United States to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy; Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law in April. Meanwhile, courts in South Carolina and Alabama have also empowered prosecutors to seek charges against pregnant people for drug usage. In all three states, Black women are expected to be disproportionately negatively affected.

This punitive climate scares many people away from seeking health care they need—a particularly tragic consequence, in light of evidence that shows substance-using pregnant women who have access to prenatal care experience better perinatal outcomes than those who don’t.

At the NAPW offices in New York City, Diaz-Tello says she gets phone calls “every week” from women in the South who fear they’ll go to jail if they seek substance abuse treatment while they’re pregnant.

“The number one thing is that people avoid prenatal care and drug treatment,” as a result of these kinds of laws, said Diaz-Tello. “They’re terrified.”

And they have good reason to be: In July, Tennessee’s SB 1391 had only been in effect for one week before Mallory Loyola was arrested for “exposing her child to amphetamine”—in other words, using drugs while pregnant. Loyola faces a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in jail.

For now, women in Texas are ostensibly protected from the kind of treatment those in Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina are facing. Still, as in the past, that hasn’t stopped more child endangerment charges from cropping up. In the last year, two more West Texas women have been arrested, this time in Ector County.

The first case, involving an Odessa woman named Talisha Redic, is particularly heartbreaking: She gave birth prematurely to a child in 2013 that was found to have cocaine in its system. Afterwards, six of Redic’s living children, between the ages of two and 11 years old, tested positive for cocaine in late 2013. The infant died, and a warrant was issued for Redic’s arrest on six counts of child endangerment.

In December 2013, Redic turned herself in to the local authorities; Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland brought a seventh child endangerment charge against Redic for ingesting cocaine while she was pregnant with her now-deceased child.

Bland issued a statement saying that his office had been denied an opportunity to put Redic in jail for life.

“The maximum punishment for the current charges is two years in prison. Had an autopsy been performed, we might have been able to develop evidence sufficient to charge the Defendant with a first-degree felony, which carries the maximum penalty of life,” said Bland in a February 2014 statement. He continued, “Justice has been denied for this infant’s death.”

For failing to complete the autopsy, a grand jury found earlier this year that “the Investigators of the Ector County Medical Examiner’s Office lack credibility, competence and accountability … which has limited our ability to fully investigate the matter at hand.”

Bland then pushed for the medical examiner’s office to be entirely disbanded, which the county commissioner’s court rejected. The chief medical examiner has since left her post for a different county department.

But while Redic awaits trial on her seven charges, Bland has turned his attention to a second Ector County woman, Tiffany Rios, who was arrested in September 2014 after giving birth in March to a child who tested positive for cocaine.

Rios doesn’t yet have a public defender and was released after spending three nights in jail. She failed to appear at her scheduled September arraignment, which means she hasn’t yet been assigned a public defender. RH Reality Check attempted to reach Rios at the address listed with the court, but was told that she didn’t live at the residence.

When RH Reality Check contacted Bland by phone for comment on the Rios case, he said he couldn’t weigh in on a pending charge, but that he was aware that the Texas Penal Code exempts pregnant women from being charged with injury to their own fetuses.

“My job is to enforce the law and to make sure that justice is served,” Bland said. When asked how incarcerating Rios might serve a larger public safety interest, Bland replied, “That’s not an appropriate question.”

Once again, it appears Farah Diaz-Tello, who hopes to intervene in Rios’ case if she can, appears to have found herself at odds with a prison-minded prosecutor.

“You can do just about anything in the name of a fetus,” Diaz-Tello said.

And in West Texas, prosecutors aim to try.

Image: Shutterstock

The post Pregnant Texans Are Being Charged With Crimes That Don’t Exist appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Obama Administration Names Key Civil Rights Nominee, But Still No Replacement for Holder

RH Reality Check - Thu, 10/16/2014 - 08:48

Read more of our articles on Attorney General Eric Holder’s potential successor here.

The Obama administration has announced a nominee for a key empty post in the Department of Justice, but it still won’t name a nominee to replace the department’s head, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder.

Holder said Wednesday that Vanita Gupta, currently the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Center for Justice, will lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The division oversees voting rights, as well as civil rights investigations like the one Holder recently opened into the Ferguson Police Department over one of its officers shooting unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Gupta has been praised across the political spectrum for her work on criminal and racial justice, including by conservative leaders like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and David Keene of the National Rifle Association.

“Vanita Gupta’s impressive advocacy of racial justice and criminal justice has had tangible results, positively changing the lives of many Americans,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. Romero called Gupta an “outstanding attorney” and a “proven and well-respected leader.”

Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society and a former colleague of Gupta’s, told RH Reality Check that she thinks Gupta would be a “terrific” choice for the Justice Department post. “She has done so much on racial justice issues, and I think it’s a moment now where that’s such an important focus for the Justice Department,” Fredrickson said.

Much of that focus is due to Holder’s legacy, Frederickson said; he’s been a leader in highlighting America’s problems with racial injustice, overly harsh sentencing, and the excessive war on drugs.

Holder’s work with indigent defendants, she said, has “defied the normal role” of the attorney general: “He has really raised up the issue of how the role of the Department of Justice is to seek justice, rather than to seek prosecution.”

Despite the short period of time left to confirm Holder’s replacement before Democrats potentially lose control of the Senate, the Obama administration confirmed Tuesday that the president will not name a new nominee before the midterm elections.

White House officials said the decision came at the request of Senate Democrats, who pressed Obama to wait so that the nomination wouldn’t get bogged down in campaign politics. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had urged the president to act quickly.

A senior Democratic leadership aide told RH Reality Check that some on the Hill have been frustrated with how the administration has handled the rollout, and that Obama should have named a nominee much sooner.

“They waited so long that it became detrimental to our candidates if they rolled someone out in the last few days before the election,” the aide said.

Obama has also faced criticism for delaying action on immigration reform until after the election to avoid making political waves.

If the nomination takes place during the lame duck session, where Democrats could push it through with a simple majority, time will be of the essence since Republicans could delay the process by up to four weeks using procedural tactics. The lame duck session only lasts until the end of the year.

It will already be a packed session with numerous competing priorities, including the long-delayed nomination of Vivek Murthy as surgeon general during an Ebola crisis. The position has been vacant for more than a year, and Murthy’s nomination has been stalled because of the National Rifle Association’s strident opposition to his support for modest gun safety measures.

The delay in nominating a candidate for attorney general is a major shift from a Friday report by the New York Times that the administration would probably make a decision before the election, and that current Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was the frontrunner.

Now reports are highlighting former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as frontrunners, though Perez is still a possibility.

A former staffer for the mayor of Seattle told RH Reality Check that Perez, who used to run the department Gupta will take over, would be an excellent choice from the standpoint of civil rights and police accountability.

When the Department of Justice investigated the Seattle Police Department for use of excessive force, the staffer said, Perez was an attentive, professional partner who helped get stalled negotiations moved again. Once that happened, “they came to a very speedy resolution, and put together a very good consent decree that pretty much everyone agrees will provide lasting reform for the police department in Seattle.”

Some Republicans think the delay is a signal that Perez, who faced a contentious confirmation hearing for Secretary of Labor and whose record on civil rights could work against him with the GOP, will in fact be the nominee.

Ruemmler was one of several female candidates whose name was floated, and a longtime friend of Holder’s suggested that the nominee would be a woman. She is rumored to be a favorite of Obama’s but could face tough questioning over her probe into the Secret Service’s 2012 prostitution scandal.

Ruemmler was also named specifically by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) as someone he would support, although Cornyn, like many Republicans, has pushed to stall the nomination process until the new Congress is in session.

Verrilli famously argued in favor of the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court, which upheld the individual mandate and most of the rest of the law as constitutional.

All three potential nominees, Fredrickson said, are “very accomplished lawyers who seem like they would be able to credibly be able to step into Eric Holder’s shoes and carry on the important work that he has done.”

Image: Visions of America /

The post Obama Administration Names Key Civil Rights Nominee, But Still No Replacement for Holder appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Anti-choice activists want you to think that Amendment 67 won’t threaten reprodu...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 20:30
Anti-choice activists want you to think that Amendment 67 won’t threaten reproductive rights, but that’s a bold-faced lie.

Colorado's 'personhood' Amendment 67 more ambiguous than partisans say
Both supporters and opponents of Amendment 67 call the measure on this year’s ballot “personhood.” But they disagree sharply on what it actually does.

It’s an unfortunate truth that anti-choice politicians have taken over the Repub...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 20:00
It’s an unfortunate truth that anti-choice politicians have taken over the Republican party. If they win in November, they’ll do everything in their power to restrict reproductive freedom.

If the GOP Wins the Senate, Expect a Total Assault on Reproductive Rights
There are only 8 abortion clinics left in Texas, a harbinger of what’s to come should Republicans triumph in November.

Scott Walker supports banning abortion in all cases, but now he’s trying to hide...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 19:00
Scott Walker supports banning abortion in all cases, but now he’s trying to hide that.

Scott Walker won't say whether his abortion position has changed : Ct
One week after launching an ad offering an ambiguous portrayal of his stance on abortion, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has declined to say whether his position has changed.

Scott Walker thinks that banning abortion entirely is “reasonable.” Sign our ope...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 18:30
Scott Walker thinks that banning abortion entirely is “reasonable.” Sign our open letter and tell him how wrong he is!

Tell Scott Walker – Banning Abortion Isn’t “Reasonable”
Recently, Scott Walker came out with a new ad where he tried to characterize his stance on choice as “reasonable.” He’s following the pattern of other Republicans across the country trying to hide their records on choice to win votes from women. The truth is, Scott Walker isn’t reasonable. He has sa…

Anti-choice activists in Tennessee want to amend the state constitution to outla...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 18:00
Anti-choice activists in Tennessee want to amend the state constitution to outlaw abortion, including in cases of rape and incest.

The Really Crazy Anti-Abortion Strategy on the Ballot in Tennessee
You really don’t want to take your eyes off the fight over reproductive freedom for even a minute. Because while you were watching abortion clinics closing across Texas and Louisiana, or the so-called personhood amendments coming back from the dead in Colorado and on the ballot in North Dakota, you.…

Access to abortion allows women to control their own bodies, lives, and futures....

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 17:30
Access to abortion allows women to control their own bodies, lives, and futures. That’s a good thing for society.

Abortion Is a Social Good. So Stand Up and Say It.
I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business. I was already a mother of two, which puts me in the majority of American women who have abortions. Six out of 10 are mothers, which makes sense, because a mother...

After SCOTUS Ruling, Eight Texas Clinics Reopen to Provide Legal Abortion Care

RH Reality Check - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 16:30

A little more than half of the number of Texas abortion clinics that were forced to shutter earlier this month have reopened for legal abortion services following a Supreme Court ruling handed down Tuesday.

The country’s highest court has blocked state officials from fully enforcing HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion law currently winding its way through the federal court system.

Eight abortion providers, including the only remaining legal abortion clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, began scheduling patients again on Wednesday. There are now 16 legal abortion facilities in Texas, up from just eight a little less than two weeks ago.

A panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled October 3 that Texas could begin fully enforcing HB 2, requiring abortion providers to operate as hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers. Just eight Texas facilities met those requirements, and 13 clinics closed overnight.

This week’s ruling allows some clinics across the state to reopen, even if they are not licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, as long as doctors who provide abortion care at those clinics have admitting privileges at local hospitals—another requirement of the new law.

Two clinics in El Paso and McAllen are exempted from the admitting privileges requirement, though only the McAllen Whole Woman’s Health clinic was able to reopen on Wednesday.

Image: Shutterstock

The post After SCOTUS Ruling, Eight Texas Clinics Reopen to Provide Legal Abortion Care appeared first on RH Reality Check.

What was the Denver Post thinking?!

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 16:30
What was the Denver Post thinking?!

The Worst Political Endorsement by a Serious Newspaper in My Lifetime | Gary Hart
I had the privilege of serving with serious Senators of both parties. Mr. Gardner has a very long way to go before even coming close to their standard of statesmanship.

Arkansas’ Mike Ross Proposes Plan to Reduce Gender Pay Gap

RH Reality Check - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 16:18

Arkansas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross last week laid out a proposal to strengthen the state’s laws protecting women against gender discrimination in the workplace. Ross outlined a series of policy objectives called the “Fair Pay and Equal Opportunity Plan.”

“Women in Arkansas are paid [77 cents] for every dollar men earn, and we are ranked 35th in the U.S. in terms of gender pay equity. That’s unacceptable because I want my daughter to have the same opportunities to succeed as my son, and I want the same for every Arkansan across this state,” Ross said.

A report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that women in Arkansas make more than $9,000 less in annual salary than their male counterparts.

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) issued a report last year with nearly identical findings. The NWLC report also looked at racial disparities in the gender pay gap. The report found Black women in the state made only 66 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made, and Latina women made 52 cents for every dollar a male earned.

Arkansas loses about $2.6 billion every year due to the wage gap, according to a report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The gender pay gap varies widely from state to state, but there are some indicators that have shown to be predictive in which states have the largeest pay gaps. One of those indicators is the number of women holding public office, of which Arkansas has among the fewest in the nation. There are currently no women serving in the state’s congressional delegation, no women in state-wide elected office. Just 17 percent of the state’s legislators are women.

Ross said his plan includes several key objectives that will strengthen the state’s equal pay laws.

These include protecting employees against retaliatory actions for discussing possible gender-based wage discrimination in the workplace and publishing an annual report about pay inequity in the workplace to measure Arkansas’s progress and recommend ways to accelerate that progress.

“These are simple and straightforward, yet powerful steps that can be taken to help guarantee equal pay for equal work in Arkansas,” Ross said. “My plan will help ensure fair pay and equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace for both men and women in Arkansas. I believe it is past time for Arkansas to become more than just the Land of Opportunity—we must be the Land of Equal Opportunity.”

Ross’ Republican opponent Asa Hutchinson said in an email to the Arkansas News that he supports equal pay.

“I fully support fair pay that is based on qualifications and ability, and there is no place for unfair treatment of employees based on sex,” Hutchinson said. “I hope this is something we can all agree on, especially because I have a daughter and granddaughter, and I want them to have the same opportunities as my sons and grandsons.”

Fifty-eight percent of self-identified Republican voters said in a recent Gallup poll that equal pay for women was an important issue, while 87 percent of Democrats said addressing the pay gap was important.

Image: Mike Ross/Youtube

The post Arkansas’ Mike Ross Proposes Plan to Reduce Gender Pay Gap appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Pennsylvania GOP Attempting to Add Pro-Gun Amendment to Domestic Violence Bill

RH Reality Check - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 16:11

Republican legislators in Pennsylvania are trying to add an anti-gun control amendment to a bill designed to protect victims of domestic violence.

HB 1796, introduced in October 2013, would protect domestic violence victims from eviction after they call police on their abusers. Many cities in Pennsylvania, as well as in states across the country, have adopted “nuisance ordinances”—laws that give landlords the power to evict disruptive households, with no exception for domestic violence victims.

Landlords and police are using the ordinances to evict victims of domestic violence who have called 9-1-1 multiple times for help, as RH Reality Check reported last summer.

The legislation introduced in Pennsylvania prohibits municipal ordinances from penalizing residents for calling the cops when they need help.

The bill passed the state house unanimously this year, but this week lawmakers said that Republicans would be adding anti-gun control language to the bill and push for a quick vote. The language being added comes directly from the failed HB 1243, which would have discouraged cities from passing gun control measures by giving legal standing to people and membership organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) to sue any municipality for having gun laws that are more stringent that the state’s.

Though no update has been given on the bill, Philadelphia magazine reported that Republican lawmakers are planning to add the amendment Wednesday and then quickly call it to a vote.

In 2011, almost 60 percent of domestic violence victim deaths involved guns, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which tracks fatalities. More than half of women homicide victims nationwide were shot and killed with a gun, and access to a gun increases the risk of death from intimate partner violence, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

The gun amendment is not the only language to be added to the bill. Senate Republicans in March added language to the bill that would prohibit cities from passing laws requiring employers to provide some forms of leave to employees, including to victims of domestic violence.

“Leave from employment is often critical to a domestic violence victim’s survival in both the short and long term,” the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence wrote in a statement responding to the leave amendment. “When victims of domestic violence have access to resources that help them build financial stability–including policies like paid sick and safe days–they and their families are much more likely to remain safe and secure.”

Image: Shutterstock

The post Pennsylvania GOP Attempting to Add Pro-Gun Amendment to Domestic Violence Bill appeared first on RH Reality Check.

Women who point out sexism in the gaming community shouldn’t be greeted with dea...

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 15:40
Women who point out sexism in the gaming community shouldn’t be greeted with death threats.

A Gamer Threatened a Mass Shooting if This Woman Spoke About Gender and Video Games
This is absolutely not OK.

Early voting starts in Kansas TODAY! Time to head to the polls and vote pro-choice:

NARAL Pro-Choice America - Wed, 10/15/2014 - 15:08
Early voting starts in Kansas TODAY! Time to head to the polls and vote pro-choice:


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