Anti-abortion activists exploit civil rights messages while omitting King’s family planning legacy

Guest Blogger:  La’Tasha D. Mayes, executive director of New Voices for Reproductive Justice, an organization building a social change movement in Pennsylvania and Ohio dedicated to the health and well-being of black women and girls.

An anti-abortion group calling themselves “Created Equal” is in Philadelphia today with the sole purpose of blitzing tourists and residents with what the Philadelphia Inquirer described as a “high-tech assault.” They have a 10-foot-tall screen on Independence Mall where they are broadcasting a video that opens with black-and-white footage of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for equal rights at the 1963 March on Washington, then cuts to full-color “gruesome close-ups of the bloody remnants of abortions.” Willing or not, tourists, residents, children and families will be forced to view these images.

Created Equal takes a specific jab at the African-American community by co-opting the legacy of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This tactic shamelessly exploits the political struggle of black Americans to achieve their human rights and fully manifest that noble ideal of being “created equal.”

In doing that, they omit the important legacy of Dr. King’s support for family planning. When he received the Margaret Sanger award in 1966, Dr. King said,

“There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.”

For the last several years, the anti-abortion movement has stigmatized and shamed black women in particular through unsuccessful attempts to filter their abortion-restricting agenda through the legacy of the Civil Right movement. It is imperative for black communities, women and abortion providers, who are the targets of these tactics, to understand the deceptive nature of this cultural and political attack.

On their website, the Columbus, Ohio-based group explicitly advocates against “consensual” communication. On Facebook, the group revealed they intend to broadcast not only pictures, but also footage of “abortions in progress.” Assaulting passersby with (sometimes doctored) bloody imagery is nothing new for anti-abortion groups, while at the same time shouting racially motivated epithets to women of color exercising their human right to abortion care.

An incoherent message

Relevant history and public health data persuasively highlights the need for women to have access to safe abortion services; lacking a rational argument, anti-abortion advocates have long relied on communication styles designed to incite emotions, rather than appeal to logic.

Over the years, the anti-abortion advocacy has become more and more incoherent — for example, working to restrict access to both abortion and birth control, while threatening to cut welfare benefits for mothers whose pregnancies are not the result of rape or incest. As the political tactics and restrictions for women have grown increasingly invasive, the bloody images have grown bigger. At the core of the anti-abortion agenda is the condescending belief that women do not have the capacity to make important decisions about their bodies.

Still, it is not the lack of basic respect for their targets and profound misunderstanding of why women have abortions that we find most disturbing. It is the audacity of these activists to co-opt the imagery and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to spread a message — and policies — that disproportionately hurt black communities.

Video reports show the young activists staging similar spectacles in other cities. There is not a black person or person of color in sight. And yet, the group attempts to hijack the imagery, language and legacy of the civil rights struggle that continues today.

Black Americans articulate their ideas about abortion in African-American Voices on Sexual Health, a poll conducted in June 2013. Regardless of personal feelings, 80 percent of black Americans agree that abortion should remain legal and safe. This statement applies to those who identify themselves as conservative (74 percent) and religious (76 percent).

As anti-abortion advocates continue to shut down abortion clinics through strategic state regulation and red tape, it is our bodies — the bodies of working and poor women, disproportionately women of color and young women — that have carried the very real burden.

The fight in Philadelphia

Nowhere do we know this more acutely than in Philadelphia, where the grand jury report charging former doctor Kermit Gosnell with hundreds of crimes noted that his flagrant abuses went unnoticed in large part because his victims were mostly poor women of color.

It is at the intersection of race and gender that New Voices Philadelphia has begun to organize black women and girls to advance reproductive justice. We believe that we each have the human right to control our bodies, sexuality, gender, work and reproduction.

Reproductive justice is a movement that is 20 years old. Black women coined the term “reproductive justice” to affirm the full lived experiences of women of color. Reproductive justice is the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have supported as part of the civil rights legacy. Depicting Dr. King as anything other than a reproductive justice champion is an affront to black women, our families, and our communities, and it is utterly disrespectful to his great sacrifice.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Victory: Bill to Protect DV Victims from Eviction Heads to Governor’s Desk

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

We asked for your help, you gave it. We heard about all the phone calls and emails. Now, together, we achieved a huge victory for the rights of domestic violence survivors in Pennsylvania, who can no longer be legally evicted from their homes for calling authorities for help when they need it.

The background:

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence victim named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler.

But after passing through the House, this good faith bill was hijacked by one bewildering amendment after another. First, a bad sick day amendment was the problem. Then, a pro-gun amendment was tacked on to the bill the same day domestic violence advocates traveled to Harrisburg to remember the victims of DV murdered in Pennsylvania last year—many of them with a gun as the weapon.

Following the lead of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we called out for supporters to contact their senators and ask to drop the amendments and pass the bill—and that’s just what happened an hour ago on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate on their last day in session.

They listened.

“No woman or man should have to risk their life, or their family because they’re scared of being evicted,” Senator Judy Schwank said.

“Do I need to remind us when we all saw a few weeks ago the senseless beating of a woman in an elevator?” asked Senator John Rafferty, Jr., before pointing out that this victory is an example of the good work that can get done when both sides of the aisle come together to cooperate on important issues.

In the end, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“I am glad that you colleagues in the Senate decided to do the right thing and remove the paid sick leave preemption language from House Bill 1796,” Senator Vincent Hughes, an advocate of the bill, told Women’s Law Project. “We must do everything we can to protect the victims of domestic violence and this version of the bill is a step forward instead of a step backwards.”

Next, it heads to the desk of the Governor to be signed into law.

This bill is the third initiative of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a bipartisan, pro-active and pro-choice legislative package designed to secure reproductive rights and promote economic security. (The first two successes were a bill to study state programs targeted to help working families, and a bill that criminalizes so-called “revenge porn.”)

The majority of Pennsylvania voters support the Agenda, a fact reported by ThinkProgress this morning. But support isn’t enough. We need to keep voting and speaking out to make it happen.

We hope you will continue to help us advocate for the rest of the Agenda, and help us spread the word about the great progress we are making here. But for now, let’s celebrate. We couldn’t have done it without you. So thank you!

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Filed under Domestic violence, PA Legislature, Violence Against Women

Tell Your Senators NO to Hijacking a Domestic Violence Bill with Gun Amendment

This just keeps getting worse and worse, and we need your help.

The Pennsylvania Senate convenes this morning at 10:00AM for the last day of the legislative session. While we hoped that PA legislators would finally pass a common-sense bill designed to protect domestic violence survivors from being evicted from their homes today, the bill has instead been hijacked with an amendment that would endanger the very population the bill is designed to protect.

The background:

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence victim named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler. After passing through the House, this good faith bill has since been sabotaged by one bewildering amendment after another. First, a bad sick day amendment was the problem.

BUT NOW, it’s even worse—the Senate is expected to add a gun rights amendment.

Unbelievably, this outrageous news came through the Capitol the same day domestic violence advocates traveled to Harrisburg to remember the 86 victims of domestic violence murdered in Pennsylvania last year.

We probably don’t need to tell you that a gun is the most common weapon used in domestic homicides. The Senate convened this morning at 10AM. You can watch live here.

We need you to contact your Senator and urge them to NOT approve this bill with this outrageous amendment.

To find your elected officials click here.

Tell them:

The solution is clear. Revert House Bill 1796 to the Printer’s Number 2870 version that unanimously passed the House of Representatives and allow an important bill to pass that would help protect the lives of domestic violence victims.

Thank you for taking action!

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, PA Legislature, Violence Against Women

Why I Wrote “Day Room Window”

A new play – based on true experience – about girls incarcerated in adult prison opens at The New Hazlett Theater (Pittsburgh, PA) October 16 – 25, 2014

In 1989, after ten years as a theatre professor and twenty years as an actor and director, I became a certified addiction counselor. Drawing on techniques I learnt and developed as an actor and acting teacher, I created a program of drama therapy that I used successfully with youth in juvenile detention in Seattle.  In 1999, based on that experience, the state of Washington asked me to go into the Washington Corrections Center for Women to work with teenage girls sentenced to adult prison. The conditions I found for the girls in adult prison were intolerable as the adult facility was not equipped to house them. The girls were confined to two small rooms and their individual cells with no age appropriate educational, social or psychological programs. Twelve teenage girls who had committed criminal acts were locked in a room with nothing more than a TV, radio, two decks of cards and board games. They were at each other constantly with no attempt on the prison’s part at rehabilitation.  In many and in most of the significant ways, these girls were no different from the kids I had worked with at the juvenile detention facility but the nature of their confinement only exacerbated their criminal thinking and mean spirited behavior. The resources available to them for rehabilitation were non-existent as was the recognition that their adolescence was a period of personal development unique to youth and different from adults in general and certainly those in prison.  I knew these girls had committed serious crimes and in a very few cases I thought there was little or no hope for rehabilitation.  But I was able to see, and with some, reach and draw out their inner, kinder, loving selves and work with them to begin to realize their individual gifts.  Unfortunately, the prison administration was unable or unwilling to make any changes.  Moved by this experience – by the injustice, courage and hope I saw – and by the need to give these girls a voice to be heard and the issue a platform to be presented, I wrote Day Room Window .

Theatre has among its many virtues the power to reveal injustice in a dramatically engrossing way. From Waiting for Lefty (labor unions) in the 1930’s to The Laramie Project (gay & lesbian rights) and The Exonerated (capital punishment) today, theatre has played an important role in raising awareness and speaking truth to power. My aim in writing Day Room Window was to do that.

Assisting as an advisor on the play is Jeff Shook, Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh with an affiliated appointment in the School of Law. Jeff will lead post-play discussions following the October 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 performances.

For tickets, call ShowClix at 1-888-718-4253 or online at Tickets also at the door.

I hope you’ll come to the theatre and give witness to these girls and to the thousands like them in prison

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Filed under Girls, Pittsburgh, Women in prisons

Pittsburgh Passes “Reasonable Accommodations” for Pregnant Workers

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation that calls for “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant women who work for the city or city contracts, and bans discrimination against pregnant employees.

The ordinance, Reasonable Accommodations Due to Pregnancy, Childbirth or Related Medical Conditions, was introduced by councilmembers Dan Gilman and Deb Gross.

At a hearing introducing the bill last month, Gilman called the legislation “essential.”

“Many times women don’t know the rights they have,” Gilman said. “It’s an important opportunity to use the megaphone of city hall to tell all women in Western Pennsylvania that if you’re going to work for the city or do business with the city, you have a reasonable expectation of a healthy and vibrant pregnancy while working.”

The ordinance notes that “more than 35 years after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) made it illegal to discriminate against a woman because of her pregnancy, women still face discrimination on the job when they become pregnant, especially in physically-demanding jobs.”

It also cites examples of discrimination from around the state, including a supermarket cashier in central PA who lost her job because she followed her doctor’s orders to carry a water bottle and a pregnant security guard denied a request to sit down part of her shift in downtown Pittsburgh.

Though the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 banned discrimination against pregnant workers, it does not address reasonable accommodations under all circumstances.

Women’s Law Project provided legal guidance and strongly supported the ordinance. Staff attorney Tara Pfeifer testified at a hearing earlier this month in support of the bill.

“At the Women’s Law Project, we have seen an increasing number of pregnant women contact us over the past few years because of the obstacles they face at work,” Pfeifer testified. “The majority of the women who have contacted us work in low-wage, physically demanding jobs, are having healthy pregnancies, and need only minor adjustments in the workplace as their pregnancies progress. “

As the ACLU noted, Pittsburgh City Council, unfortunately, doesn’t have the authority under state law to expand protections to pregnant women who work for private employers.

Earlier this year, Rep. Mark Painter and Senator Matt Smith introduced bills to extend similar protections to pregnant workers throughout the state as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

Both bills have been sitting in committee for months.

Pennsylvania is one of the top ten worst states for pregnancy discrimination, according to a 2008 report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

In January, Philadelphia amended the Fair Practices Ordinance to provide reasonable accommodations protection for pregnant workers.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, Jr. has been calling for support of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would extend reasonable accommodations protection nationally.

According to a recent report in the Patriot News, “the bill has more than 30 co-sponsors and the support of President Barack Obama, but it has no bipartisan support. Casey said he’s doubtful, for that reason, that it will make it out of its committee this term.”

Contact Tara Murtha at or 215-928-5762 for more information or to speak with a Women’s Law Project attorney.

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Filed under pregnant workers fairness, Women's Law Project, working mothers, working women

Women’s Law Project Joins Nationwide Coalition Calling on Department of Justice to Denounce Enhanced Sentence for Pregnant Woman

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

Women’s Law Project joined New Voices Philadelphia: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, and a coalition of 48 reproductive justice, drug policy reform, women’s rights and civil liberties organizations across the country in sending a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to renounce enhanced criminal penalties for women on the basis of pregnancy.

From a statement released by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women:

In the case at issue, Lacey Weld pled guilty to the crime of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine.  According to a statement issued by U.S. Attorney William C. Killian of the Eastern District of Tennessee, she was given an enhanced sentence—an additional six years in federal prison—because she was pregnant at the time she committed the crime.

The coalition demonstrates in its strongly worded letter that an enhanced sentence based on pregnancy is contrary to the Obama Administration’s commitment to rational and just sentencing policies, women’s reproductive and civil rights, and the health and well-being of children and families. The letter also makes clear that this position is contrary to the Obama Administration’s stated support for science and evidence-based research as the basis for public policy.

Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, calls the action “profoundly discriminatory.”

Cherisse Scott, Founder and CEO of the Tennessee-based organization SisterReach, said:

“Opening the door to enhanced penalties for pregnant women will unquestionably make women of color—a group already subject to extraordinary disproportionality in criminal punishment and sentencing—even more vulnerable to state and federal control and punishment. U.S. Attorney Killian’s statement reinforced medical misinformation that is fueling the arrests of pregnant women and new mothers under Tennessee’s new fetal assault law and destroying families in the process.”

From the letter sent to Attorney General Holder:

Targeting women who become pregnant for unique crimes and special penalties defies principles of equal protection as well as this Administration’s clear commitment to equal justice for women and families, as demonstrated by numerous efforts including its establishment of the Council on Women and Girls, its support for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and its emphasis on pay equity.

The imposition of criminal sanctions for using methamphetamine – a non-existent crime –violates clear due process principles and prohibitions on ex post facto laws. It also directly conflicts with Administration positions on drug policy.  As the Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy recently explained: “Under the Obama administration, we’ve really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction. . . . We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”

Read the full letter here.

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Filed under Pregnancy, pregnancy discrimination, Women's Law Project

September, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

First, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tara Murtha, and I’m the newest member of the Women’s Law Project team. I’ll be working on strategic communications, which includes corresponding with you, our beloved constituent and supporter of equal rights for women and girls. I’ve known about the work of Women’s Law Project for years, as a journalist and engaged member of the Philadelphia community interested in social justice and equality. Even so, since coming on board, I’ve discovered WLP staff and board members have their hands in even more projects than I realized. I’m thrilled to be able to work with them directly and to meet some of you at our annual party in December.

I couldn’t think of a more exciting time to work on these issues. We have the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health on the table, a bipartisan package of bills focused on women’s health and economic equality—of course, neither issue can seriously be discussed without the other. Since announcing the first and then second wave of bills, many of these bills have been introduced and sent to committee. In July, Governor Corbett signed a version of the so-called “Revenge Porn” bill initially introduced as part of the Agenda.

Meanwhile, we’ve entered a feminist zeitgeist where we find WLP issues like sexual assault, campus sexual assault, domestic violence awareness and equal pay in the daily news cycle. It seems society is waking up once again, and I’m happy to be here, ready to rise and shine a brighter light on these issues along with the rest of the staff and your support.

Have an idea or want to work on a project to engage voters? Have feedback on the website, or want to know more about a particular issue? Drop me a line. I can be reached at 215-928-5762, or drop me a note at

So! Introductions out of the way, let’s get back to September, the best month that smells like freshly sharpened pencils. The kids are back in school, and the Legislature is back in session.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly reconvened just as the US Census Bureau published a new report revealing that 14.5 percent of Americans live in poverty. So what is one of the first things the Pennsylvania Legislature do? Propose cutting benefits to struggling families with newborn babies.

Sponsored by Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, HB 2477 would implement what’s known as a “family cap” on the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program. Family caps deny babies conceived while the family is enrolled in the program from receiving TANF benefits. Quite literally, this bill attempts to deter poor women from giving birth by refusing to financially help the child.

We think it’s a bad idea. You can read more about the family cap bill on the Women’s Law Project blog here. We’ll keep you posted if it progresses.

Now, some good news: For the first time in more than 50 years, Pennsylvania hosted a hearing on the ongoing and persistent problem of the gender pay gap.

On September 18, WLP Senior Attorney Susan Frietsche testified in support of House Bill 1890 in front of the Pennsylvania House Labor and Industry Committee. Sponsored by Rep. Erin Molchany and Rep. Brian Sims, H.B. 1890 would amend Pennsylvania’s Equal Pay Act to give it some teeth.

Pennsylvania’s gender wage gap is the 12th largest in the country. Despite equal pay laws on the books, gender wage gap is still persistent, and progress narrowing it has slowed. Women working full-time year round in Pennsylvania are paid 76 cents to the dollar paid to men. A Pennsylvania woman working full time, year-round is paid $11,916 less a year than a man working full time, year round.

H.B.1890 would go a long way toward chiseling down that difference.

More good news: We’ve also seen momentum on the Patient Trust Act. Introduced by Rep. Dan Frankel, the Patient Trust Act says that politicians have no business putting words that are “not medically accurate and appropriate for the patient” into the mouths of doctors.

The Patriot-News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Delaware County Daily Times and the Huffington Post are just a few of the outlets that published a powerful op-ed on the Patient Trust Act written by WLP Senior Staff attorney Sue Frietsche and WomenVote PA co-chair Kate Michelman.

The Patient Trust Act is a model for other states; a recent report called Bad Medicine: How a Political Agenda is Undermining Women’s Health Care demonstrates that these kinds of bills where politicians try to force words into the mouths of doctors are becoming increasingly common. Both the Equal Pay legislation and the Patient Trust Act were drafted as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

A Pennsylvania doctor expressed her support for the bill by writing a letter to the editor of the Patriot News: “I certainly don’t want a politician putting words in my mouth,” wrote Dr. Kristen McElhinney. “Especially if those words aren’t medically accurate or appropriate for a patient in my care. Who can argue with protecting my sacred commitment to my patients?”

We’ll be watching for an answer to that question, and keep you posted on the bill’s continued progress.

What else? We hung out with All Above All, a national organization advocated for a repeal of restrictions on abortion funding, when they stopped at Love Park in Philadelphia as part of a national tour.

In the digital space, WomenVote PA, the action arm of the Women’s Law Project, launched a new Tumblr blog as another way to keep everyone informed with policy updates, news and the latest reports relevant to equality for women and girls in Pennsylvania and beyond. Please check us out and follow, heart and re-blog us over at (You can also follow us on twitter at @womenvotepa, and like us on Facebook.)

Best regards,


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Filed under PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Reproductive Rights, Women's Law Project, women's rights