Women of PA, Get Informed and Vote on Nov. 4th!

By Kate Michelman and Carol E. Tracy

Pennsylvania women have the power to change the future of their state, and their own lives, by voting in next month’s election. The question is, do they understand the high stakes that make their participation vital?

In the midst of political campaigns, with the inevitable preposterous claims and accusations flying around, it is easy to dismiss politics as a game, or to think that one vote won’t make a difference. That’s precisely what the people who hold political power in Pennsylvania hope you will think.

The reality is very different. The women of Pennsylvania, more than five million strong, can and should be the decisive force in electing the policymakers who will determine the laws on issues like economic security, reproductive rights, domestic violence, and education. These issues affect women more than they do men. And poll after poll shows that women care more about these issues than men do.

The reason our laws have been out of step with what would be best for women is simple:

Women have not voted as if their lives depend on it.

The women of the commonwealth need to think about these questions while deciding whether voting is worth the effort:

Is it time for equal pay to become a reality? Despite all the evidence of a pay gap between men and women, Pennsylvania hasn’t updated equal-pay laws in more than 50 years.

Is it time that so-called family-friendly values make their way to the workplace? Our elected officials talk a big game about support for families. Yet in most of Pennsylvania today, pregnant women don’t have the right to get a drink of water or take a bathroom break, and after giving birth, they don’t have the right to pump breast milk at work. Bills introduced to correct these discriminatory practices have languished in committee for months.

Is it time to stop discriminating against poor and working women? For four years, the Pennsylvania legislature has passed measure upon measure that disproportionately burdens poor and working women. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of reproductive health. The simple truth is that women cannot control their own lives if they can’t control their own reproductive decisions.

You don’t need to take our word for it. Experts repeatedly confirm that Pennsylvania’s record on women is abominable. The Center for American Progress recently gave Pennsylvania a C-minus grade on women’s issues, ranking us 28th among the 50 states in the treatment of women.

Things can be different.

The Women’s Health Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral caucus of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, led by Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) and Sens. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) and Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks), is addressing a wide range of legal and policy barriers to improve the health and rights of women through the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.

The agenda is a bold, pro-choice, pro-woman state legislative package designed to proactively address the health needs and concerns of women in our state.

The first two phases of the agenda include bills that, if passed, would provide protections for pregnant women, female veterans, victims of domestic violence, nursing mothers, and much, much more. Pennsylvania recently held a hearing to review evidence of the gender pay gap and consider corrective legislation.

Many other bills have been introduced and are awaiting action. Whether these legislative initiatives become reality depends on the lawmakers and politicians we vote into office. They are the ones who will pass these bills.

Here’s the bottom line: If women want to make progress in Pennsylvania, they cannot stay home this November and wait for 2016 to vote.

In 2008, 64 percent of registered female voters turned up at the polls to cast a vote for president. Then, for the gubernatorial election in 2010, only 44 percent of registered female voters showed up. In Pennsylvania, unmarried female, minority, and young voters fail to vote in midterm elections at a rate almost twice that of older, married, male voters.

This means women aren’t represented in elections that decide who is governor, who sits in the General Assembly, and who represents us in Congress. Meanwhile, it’s the results of mid-term elections that have the most direct impact on our lives.

With so much at stake, women need to take action. Taking action means becoming educated on the issues and voting.

WomenVote PA (www.womenvotepa.org), the education and mobilization initiative of the Women’s Law Project, was formed to do just that – provide women with a resource to learn about the issues directly affecting them and encourage them to exercise their hard-earned right to vote.

The message to the women of Pennsylvania is simple:

Don’t let your silence this Election Day dictate the outcomes for the coming years.

If you stay home this November, your apathy will be read as approval, and nothing will change. Get informed and get to the polls. Spread the word among friends, neighbors, and coworkers that voting does matter and will make a difference. Just think what we could accomplish for Pennsylvania’s women if that happened.

Kate Michelman is cochair of WomenVote PA, president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.” Carol E. Tracy is executive director of the Women’s Law Project (www.womenslawproject.org) and cochair of WomenVote PA.

This op-ed appeared at: http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20141021_Women_of_Pa___get_informed_and_vote_on_Nov__4.html

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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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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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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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Why I Wrote “Day Room Window”

Guest Blog by Playwright Bonnie Cohen on her 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 showclix.com. 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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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 tmurtha@womenslawproject.org or 215-928-5762 for more information or to speak with a Women’s Law Project attorney.

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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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