Monthly Archives: August 2010

Chatham University Will Hold Q & A Session with Gubernatorial Candidate Dan Onorato

Update: Please note the new time and day for this event!

The Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy will hold a public forum with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato on Wednesday, September 29 at 2:30 PM. The forum will focus on the potential impact an Onorato administration would have for women and girls throughout the Commonwealth. Audience members will also have the opportunity to ask the candidate questions.

Dan Onorato currently serves as Allegheny County Executive and previously served as county controller and on Pittsburgh City Council. During his time as County Executive, he signed an ordinance passed by Allegheny County Council that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in employment, housing and public accommodations countywide.

This is a great opportunity for Pennsylvania residents to discuss what might happen for women and girls if Onorato is elected governor in November. Its especially crucial to consider this issue, as women are half the population yet Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of the 50 states in both women’s representation in government and in terms of women’s overall political participation.

You can RSVP for the event on Facebook or at Chatham’s website.

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Filed under 2010 Election, Allegheny County Council, Democracy, Events, Girls, Government, Pennsylvania, Politics

No Hard-wired Differences Between Male and Female Brains

In Delusions of Gender, a new book that seeks to correct popular false conceptions of sex and gender, Cordelia Fine, shows that “there are no major neurological differences between the sexes.”  Fine, who is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, presents compelling evidence from the latest neuroscience and psychology research to demonstrate that commonly-accepted “innate” gender differences are actually the result of socialization.

Dr. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, another recent book debunking the “hard-wired” differences between boys and girls, weighs in on the issue in this article from The Observer:

“Yes, there are basic behavioural differences between the sexes, but we should note that these differences increase with age because our children’s intellectual biases are being exaggerated and intensified by our gendered culture. Children don’t inherit intellectual differences. They learn them. They are a result of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

The current popular stress on innate intellectual differences between the sexes is, in part, a response to psychologists’ emphasis of the environment’s importance in the development of skills and personality in the 1970s and early 1980s, said Eliot. This led to a reaction against nurture as the principal factor in the development of human characteristics and to an exaggeration of the influence of genes and inherited abilities. This view is also popular because it propagates the status quo, she added. “We are being told there is nothing we can do to improve our potential because it is innate. That is wrong. Boys can develop powerful linguistic skills and girls can acquire deep spatial skills.”

Dr. Eliot notes that “All the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong…There is almost nothing we do with our brains that is hard-wired. Every skill, attribute and personality trait is moulded by experience.”

We’re happy to see neuroscientists taking on the pop psychology tropes that boys and girls or men and women are “hard-wired” to be so incredibly different from one another that they can’t be educated together or need to purchase junk science books to relate to one another. Once we can get put these gendered assumptions behind us, we can focus on the reality of the situation: that every person, regardless of gender, is different, and that there is far more that our brains have in common than not.

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Filed under Education, Equality, Girls

U.S. Attorney General Takes Action Against Aggressive Clinic Protester

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is seeking an injunction that would limit anti-choice activist Mary Susan Pine’s access to the driveways leading up to the Presidential Women’s Center, an abortion clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida. According to Sharon Levin, vice president and general counsel of the National Abortion Federation, this lawsuit is the first in Florida to employ the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits obstructing clinic entrances, injuring anyone involved with a clinic, or causing damage to a clinic.

Holder’s action is part of a promised crackdown on clinic violence, a reaction to Kansas abortion provider George Tiller’s 2009 murder. While Pine currently has no charges of violence against her, she regularly participates in “sidewalk counseling” and, according to Holder, once blocked a car from entering one of the clinic’s driveways (an allegation she denies). Presidential Women’s Center attorney Louis Silber contends that Pine’s behavior oversteps the First Amendment, saying, “she’s gone beyond letting her opinion be known.”

This is not the first time the Presidential Women’s Center has dealt with violent action on their property. The Sun-Sentinel reports that an unknown arsonist set fire to the facility in 2006. While the incident initially prompted the West Palm Beach City Commission to enact a 20-foot buffer zone around the clinic, a judge later ruled the buffer zone to be “too restrictive” and replaced the law with one “that limits amplified noise near medical centers.”

The clinic’s struggle to gain legitimate protection from violent protest makes Holder’s efforts all the more significant. Buffer zones can reduce the risk of violence by deterring those who would otherwise consider violating elements of the FACE Act, and making them an integral part of clinic structure would increase the safety and dignity of anyone entering or exiting clinics. The First Amendment is always at the forefront of clinic protest and violence discussions, but the core of this issue is safety from violence, rather than a barricade against protester opinion.

Holder’s injunction could be just the start of many progressive actions taken to enforce federal laws protecting abortion clinics in the United States, and we look forward to more vigorous enforcement of the FACE Act by the federal government in the future.

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Filed under Abortion, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Celebrating the Third Circuit’s Decision in Reedy v. Evanson

Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Reedy v. Evanson, reviving a Butler County rape survivor’s civil lawsuit against the police officers who wrongly arrested and jailed her for false reporting, was gratifying to women’s advocates for several reasons.

Most importantly, the Court of Appeals showed the face of justice to a young woman who had been viciously attacked not just by her assailant but also by a hostile criminal justice system. The lengthy precedential appellate opinion [PDF] exposed and dismantled the sexist assumptions the police used against her: real victims fight back to the utmost, even with a gun to the head; real victims accept psychological counseling; real victims are polite and compliant even when falsely accused; real victims are so shattered they couldn’t possibly remember the exact time of the rape; real victims don’t use profane slang in describing the obscenities committed upon them. The court ruling almost could have been written by the sexual assault experts who joined the Women’s Law Project’s amicus brief in the case, so impassioned was the opinion and so grounded in the realities of women’s experience. The situational irony here is rich: the victim who wasn’t believed, in part because she didn’t fight hard enough, just smashed her tormentors to smithereens.

But there’s another reason why feminists should be celebrating the Reedy decision, and that is the ruling’s heavy reliance on another Women’s Law Project case, the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case Crystal Ferguson v. City of Charleston. This case figured prominently in the Reedy Court’s discussion of whether the police defendants violated Ms. Reedy’s Fourth Amendment rights when, in their frenzy to incriminate her for something, they seized her hospital blood test results in a warrantless search for illegal drug use.

Crystal Ferguson was a poor, pregnant, African-American mother with an untreated addiction at a time and place where no accessible treatment for women with children existed. Unfortunately for Ms. Ferguson, the South Carolina public hospital where she got obstetric care had a secret agreement with local police and prosecutors to drug test pregnant patients without their consent and turn the test results over to the police if they tested positive.

Ms. Ferguson gave birth to a healthy baby, and was taken in handcuffs from her hospital bed to jail. The hospital defended its policy—technically, an unconstitutional search and seizure of Ms. Ferguson’s body fluids—by invoking the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. They argued that because the state has a “special need” to protect fetuses (to whom the state attorney general referred as “fellow South Carolinians”), women lose their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures when they become pregnant. The hospital claimed, in essence, that the state should have the power to inspect and monitor women’s wombs to ensure a healthy pregnancy.

The Women’s Law Project together with the Center for Reproductive Rights represented Ms. Ferguson in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor. In the opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “The reasonable expectation of privacy enjoyed by the typical patient undergoing diagnostic tests in a hospital is that the results of those tests will not be shared with nonmedical personnel without her consent.” Importantly, these core constitutional protections are not shed when a woman becomes pregnant. The high court noted that to rule otherwise could well discourage women from seeking medical care when they need it most.

The Reedy Court found a perfect parallel between the unconstitutional search and seizure of Crystal Ferguson’s body fluids and the police seizure of Ms. Reedy’s hospital blood test results. The police officers claimed that Ms. Reedy consented to the drug testing when she signed consents to undergo a rape exam, but drawing on Ferguson, the appeals court rejected this reasoning, pointing out the practical consequences if rape victims knew they could be involuntarily drug tested for law enforcement purposes whenever they consented to treatment for sexual assault. The court concluded that, in addition to the other civil rights violations committed against Ms. Reedy, the police had violated her Fourth Amendment rights when they seized her hospital test results without her consent.

This evolving caselaw, building on earlier WLP victories, illustrates perfectly how the strategic selection of impact litigation works to strengthen and expand women’s rights. How right that Ms. Reedy’s legal weapon was forged a decade ago by another apparently powerless woman, equally marginalized and likewise betrayed by the institutions that should have protected her.

Crystal Ferguson died tragically in 2007. We wish she could have witnessed this late flowering of the seeds she planted during her own long struggle.

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Filed under Pennsylvania, Pregnancy, Rape

A Major Win for Marriage Equality is Intertwined With the Fight for Reproductive Autonomy

This week marked an enormous step forward for LGBT rights in the United States when Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Proposition 8 – California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage – unconstitutional.

In his opinion, Judge Walker emphasized the irrelevance of one’s sex or gender in terms of relationship legitimacy and the ability to sustain a family.  Marriage in the United States has not been a static tradition, especially in terms of gender equity. According to Walker, breaking down inequities between men and women in heterosexual marriage serves as a precursor to same-sex marriage:

Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. … Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.

The overturn of Prop 8 is a victory not just for the LGBT community, but for supporters of reproductive rights as well. As Shira Saperstein writes:

Reproductive rights are about nothing less than the ability to chart one’s own course in life—to make decisions about love, sex, and family without government interference or discrimination. That ability is central to core American values of freedom, equality, and fairness.

In terms of American marriage, charting one’s own course in life is enmeshed with the decision to have (or not to have) children. A major argument in support of Prop 8 is the inability of same-sex couples to produce children through sexual intercourse, but this is an issue that realistically affects some heterosexual marriages as well. Linking the ability to procreate with the legitimacy of a relationship would, in effect, be declaring a significant number of opposite-sex marriages meaningless (not to mention backtracking considerably in terms of women’s roles in society).

Judge Walker addresses the procreation claim, saying, “Never has the state inquired into procreative capacity or intent before issuing a marriage license; indeed, a marriage license is more than a license to have procreative sexual intercourse.”

As Jessica Arons points out, much of Judge Walker’s decision is grounded in the interrelated nature of discrimination. He discusses the necessity of sex equality and sexual orientation equality as the foundation for marriage equality. He also strikes down the notion that same-sex couples are inferior parents, stating:

The evidence does not support a finding that California has an interest in preferring opposite-sex parents over same-sex parents. Indeed, the evidence shows beyond any doubt that parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes….Proposition 8 makes it less likely that California children will be raised in stable households….the evidence shows Proposition 8 disadvantages families and their children.

Jessica Arons says it well when she writes, “reproductive and sexual rights are integrally and intimately linked. When one is undermined so is the other. But when one is affirmed, the victory is doubly sweet.” The overturn of Proposition 8 is a great win in the ongoing fight for LGBT rights and reproductive justice.

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Filed under Equality, Government, LGBT, Sexual orientation

Misoprostol: A Catalyst for Revolution?

An optimistic op-ed published by Nicholas Kristof this weekend in the New York Times hypothesized that the medication misoprotol will revolutionize abortion access around the world, especially in developing countries, where five-sixths of abortions occur and “up to 70,000 women die a year from complications.”  Kristof claims that the drug, due to its use for other medical reasons, including treating stomach ulcers and stopping postpartum hemorrhages,will be very difficult for governments to ban.

In medical abortion procedures, misoprostol is most often paired with mifepristone (formerly known as RU-486) to end a pregnancy. This combination has a 95% success rate in aborting early pregnancies, and researchers are finding that using only misoprostol has an 80-85% percent success rate, which, as one doctor noted, is still better than the unsafe alternatives that women often try to end their unwanted pregnancies.  And while mifepristone is banned in many countries worldwide (on the African continent, only South Africa and Tunisia have approved it), misoprostol is commonly found throughout the world and can be purchased over the Internet from Indian pharmaceutical companies that mass-produce both mifepristone and misoprostol.  Kristof’s confidence in the pill’s growing influence is apparent:

[L]ast year the World Health Organization expanded [misoprostol’s] uses as an “essential medicine” to include treatment of miscarriages and incomplete abortions.

Brazil and some other countries have tried to tighten access to misoprostol because of its use for abortion. But curbing access to misoprostol would mean that more women would die of hemorrhages.

As word spreads among women worldwide about what a few pills can do, it’s hard to see how politicians can stop this gynecological revolution.

Kristof’s belief in governments’ inability to ban distribution of misoprostol because of its other uses is optimistic. While we wholeheartedly support greater access to abortion worldwide, we need only look at how funding for stem cell research has been effectively banned for the past decade because of anti-choice crusaders bent on stalling medical breakthroughs because of their opposition to abortion rights.

And Kristof’s belief that law enforcement would ignore the drug’s use to end pregnancies where abortion is illegal isn’t completely supported by women’s experiences. Women’s Health News covered a New York Times magazine article in 2006 which reported that in El Salvador, a country with a total abortion ban even in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment, women who were clandestinely using misoprostol for medical abortion have been subjected to police investigations in which forced pelvic/vaginal examinations took place.  In cases of “failed illegal abortions where the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy… the uterus is sent to the Forensic Institute, where the government’s doctors analyze it and retain custody of her uterus as evidence against her.”

Is misoprostol a pill that will revolutionize abortion?  Our hopes lie with Kristof’s optimistic idea of a quiet revolution in abortion access, but the reality might not live up to it.

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Filed under Abortion, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

New Law Gives More Alabamans Protection from Intimate Partner Violence

Under a new law, Alabama can now protect domestic violence victims who have been in a dating relationship for at least six months. Previously, “there must have been a connection by marriage, a child being involved in the relationship, a common-law marriage, or the abuse include a former household member in order to file a protection order.” The new law also recognizes arson, criminal trespassing, and criminal coercion as abuse and allows people as young as 18 to file for protection.

Under this new law, significantly more people can be protected from their abusers. Thirty-five percent of domestic violence victims are victims of dating abuse who previously lacked sufficient protections under Alabama law. Carolyn Crump, Executive Director of Kelly’s Rainbow, a non-profit shelter in Alabama, praises the law for allowing 18-year-olds to file for protection: “we get a lot of people in here that are 18, but they didn’t qualify to get a protection order, and their parents would have to come in for them.”

However, while the new law certainly has improved Alabama regulations on who can file for protection from their abuser, there is still a lot of work to be done. As The Curvature stated, the law still “leaves far too many victims of abuse out in the cold.” The new law still excludes minors under the age of 18 and those who have been in a dating relationship less than six months from receiving protection from domestic violence.

Other states have also addressed the issue of domestic violence recently. The Connecticut legislature passed several anti-domestic violence laws, including prevention programs and better funding for shelters. Recently proposed bills in Maryland would have decreased the standard of evidence for receiving a protective order from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of evidence,” the standard in every other civil matter. Unfortunately, the Maryland legislature did not pass the bills.

Domestic violence continues to be an issue across the country. While it is encouraging that state legislatures have been addressing this issue recently, there is still more work to be done.  For information about how well your state deals with issues of domestic violence, particularly with regard to dating violence, check out Break the Cycle’s 2010 State Report Cards (PDF).  FYI: Pennsylvania received a grade of “D.”

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Filed under Domestic violence, Government, Pennsylvania