Monthly Archives: March 2012

Decades after Reforms Erased Sexual Assault Myths from the Letter of the Law, Pennsylvania’s Criminal Justice System Remains Infected

In the early morning hours in a college dorm room, three young men took turns physically restraining and vaginally, anally, and orally penetrating an eighteen-year-old woman student without her consent.  The victim had allowed the three men — who were friends of a friend — to hang out in her room after a party in the hall had ended, but said “no” when one tried to kiss her and then tried to move away when he made further sexual advances.  Afraid, embarrassed, and in shock, she was unable to take any further action to protect herself.  The district attorney brought charges against the men, and after a three day trial, the jury convicted the three men of sexual assault, indecent assault, and false imprisonment.  The trial court affirmed the sexual assault and indecent assault convictions when it denied the defendants’ motion for a new trial.  On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned these convictions.  The case, Commonwealth v. Claybrook, is now on appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In an Amicus (“friend of the court”) brief filed on March 2, 2012 on behalf of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) and forty-two Pennsylvania and national organizations dedicated to justice for victims of sexual assault, amici argue that the Superior Court overturned these convictions in reliance on sexual assault myths, including the myths that primarily strangers perpetrate sexual assault and that social interaction, absence of physical resistance, absence of severe physical injuries, and certain post-assault victim behaviors imply consent.  These myths have been discredited by social science research and eliminated by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Pennsylvania General Assembly dramatically changed Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws.  For example, the legislature eliminated the requirements of resistance, corroboration, and prompt complaint so that a victim’s lack of active resistance, lack of physical injuries, or delay in reporting the crime would not bar prosecution.  In 1995, the legislature revamped Pennsylvania’s sex offense laws again.  Recognizing the complexity of sexual assault, particularly when the parties know each other, the legislature adopted a broader definition of forcible compulsion, eliminated differential treatment of spousal rape, and recognized the crime of “sexual assault,” defined as sexual penetration without consent.  With these changes, as legislative history shows and as the amicus brief lays out, the legislature eliminated several sexual assault myths from the law.

Social science research supports the elimination of these myths.  Most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows; rape often results in few, if any, physical injuries apart from the rape itself; and many victims do not physically resist their attackers for a variety of reasons, including fear of serious injury or death and trauma that causes some victims to become immobilized.  Furthermore, research shows that there is a wide range of reactions and behaviors that victims exhibit during and in the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is erroneous to assume that a victim should behave in any particular way.

The perpetuation of myths adopted by the Superior Court fuels distrust in the criminal justice system and contributes to the low reporting of sex offenses.  The vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police.  A recent discussion on twitter with the hashtag #ididnotreport illustrates how lack of confidence in the justice system silences victims of sexual assault and harassment.  One tweet explains, “[I did not report] because I have no faith in our justice system where so few rapists are jailed + victims are treated like perpetrators.”

To stop sexual assault and create a just society where perpetrators of sexual violence are punished for their crimes, the justice system must rid itself of the types of myths on which the Superior Court relied in Commonwealth v. Claybrook.

For more information on WLP’s work related to violence against women, click here and stay tuned for WLP’s forthcoming report, Through the Lens of Equality: Gender Bias, Health, and a New Vision for Pennsylvania’s Women, which details the pernicious impact of sexual assault and harassment on women’s health.

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Filed under PA Supreme Court, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

“I Will NOT Be Denied” Health Care

The Women’s Law Project is proud to join the National Women’s Law Center’s  I Will NOT Be Denied™ campaign to educate the public about the benefits of the health care law and what is at risk if it is repealed.  We are pleased to participate in releasing NWLC’s new campaign video which uses intimate portraits of women to highlight the importance of protecting the benefits that women are already receiving from the law and will continue to receive as new benefits roll out through 2014.

While opponents spread misinformation about the Affordable Care Act, the bottom line is that the health care law is already making a meaningful difference in peoples’ lives.

  • Millions more women can now receive preventive services like mammograms, Pap smears, and colonoscopies without a co-pay;
  • It is now illegal for insurance companies to deny children care because of a pre-existing condition.
  • Later this year, millions more women will have access to well-woman exams and birth control without a co-pay, and all health plans will have to include maternity care.

And this is just the beginning. But opponents of the law are fighting to take all these important benefits and common-sense protections away from you.

Take a stand and help us protect women’s health care. Join the campaign by signing our online petition, learn the facts, share the video and tell opponents of affordable care “I Will NOT Be Denied.”™
And join the #NotDenied conversation on Twitter.

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Filed under Health Care, Health insurance, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Federal Court in Pennsylvania to Decide Death Benefits Dispute Involving a Surviving Same-Sex Spouse

A death benefits dispute between a surviving same-sex spouse and the decedent’s parents took center stage on Monday, March 12th, when U.S. District Court Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania heard oral arguments from the attorneys for the parties.  This case is being closely watched across the nation because it is the first case in which a private employer has claimed that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) prohibits it from providing equal benefits to same-sex spouses.  While the principal parties in the case – the surviving spouse, Jennifer Tobits, and the decedents’ parents, David and Joan Farley – both argued that the Court need not address the constitutionality of DOMA to resolve their dispute and instead, only analyze and interpret the language of the pension plan, the potential implications of the Court’s decision are momentous.  If the Court concludes that DOMA applies to the pension plan at issue, the ruling would result in a unprecedented extension of DOMA to private, non-governmental actors and jeopardize the rights of numerous private employees who are married to same-sex spouses and currently entitled to benefits under the private pension plans of countless employers, including small businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and law firms.  Teresa S. Renaker, one of Ms. Tobits’ attorneys, pointed out to the Court that any such application would be a “radical expansion of DOMA’s reach far beyond its intended public-sector scope and into private-sector employment.”

Ms. Tobits legally married Sarah Ellyn Farley in Canada in 2006, a mere two weeks before Ms. Farley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  After battling the disease together for four years, Ms. Farley died in 2010 at the age of 37.  After Ms. Farley’s death, Ms. Farley’s parents, who never approved of their daughter’s sexual orientation or her marriage to Ms. Tobits, attempted to collect Ms. Farley’s pension plan proceeds from her employer, Cozen O’Connor, a national law firm where Ms. Farley worked for six years as an attorney in its Chicago, Illinois, office.  Under Cozen O’Connor’s pension plan, a surviving spouse receives a deceased employee’s death benefit and “spouse” is defined in the plan as the person to whom an employee has been married for at least one year.  Nothing in the plan states that same-sex spouses are excluded.  Rather than paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, Cozen O’Connor instead initiated this lawsuit, claimed that DOMA prevents it from paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, and asked the Court to decide who is entitled to the benefit.  Because the Court asked the parties to address the constitutionality of DOMA in the context of resolving this dispute, two governmental entities intervened in the case – the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (“BLAG”) of the United States House of Representatives.  The DOJ contends that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be stricken, while BLAG defends DOMA.

Notably, during the pendency of this federal action, an Illinois state court ruled that Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits were legally married in Canada and that Ms. Tobits is entitled to all of the rights and protections afforded to spouses under Illinois law.  This ruling resulted from a probate action filed by the Farleys after their daughter died in which the Farleys falsely claimed that their daughter was single and asked the court to appoint Ms. Farley’s father as the administrator of his daughter’s estate.  In reaching its decision, the Illinois court rejected the Farleys’ claims and appointed Ms. Tobits, the surviving spouse, as the administrator of Ms. Farley’s estate.

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Filed under Domestic Partnership, LGBT, Marriage Equality, Pennsylvania

Ongoing study: Mandatory ultrasounds have very little impact on abortion decisions

Mandatory ultrasound viewing is quickly becoming the new favorite tactic of the state-level war on choice. Six states currently require all women seeking abortions to view ultrasound images, and until women’s health advocates weighed in with a tidal wave of opposition, our very own state of Pennsylvania was poised to be the seventh.

The rationale behind mandatory ultrasound laws is that when a pregnant woman sees the ultrasound image of her fetus, she will feel a maternal attachment and be less inclined to terminate her pregnancy.

We’ve been hearing this argument for years.  According to the Family Research Council (an ultra-conservative group that actively opposes abortion, divorce, LGBT rights, and embryonic stem-cell research to name a few), “eight in ten pregnancy resource centers report that ‘abortion-minded’ women decide to keep their babies after seeing ultrasound images,” and “[a]ccording to an executive director of an Iowa pregnancy resource center, 90 percent of women who see their baby by ultrasound choose life.” Americans United for Life insists that “medical evidence indicates that women feel bonded to their children after seeing them on the ultrasound screen” – as evidence, they refer to a 1983 study that reported exactly two cases of women, around three months pregnant, feeling bonded with their fetuses after viewing ultrasounds.

Now, almost thirty years later, assistant medical professor Tracy Weitz is conducting a more comprehensive study – interviewing twenty abortion-seeking women in two states and surveying ultrasound clinicians about their practices – to determine whether ultrasound advocates’ claims are accurate. And while research is far from over, preliminary results suggest that women consistently choosing to carry their pregnancies to term after viewing the ultrasound image is less documented phenomenon, and more pro-life fantasy.

The majority of clinicians interviewed felt that ultrasound viewing typically had little or no impact on a woman’s decision. Some reported that the information gathered through the ultrasound was useful to women making their decisions – information such as gestational age – but the ultrasound itself was rarely a game-changer.  Said one:

 I’ve never had a patient change their mind simply by seeing the ultrasound… just seeing the ultrasound hasn’t made anyone say, “Okay well, I don’t want to do this.”

Weitz recommends giving all women seeking abortions the option of viewing an ultrasound image of the fetus, but discourages mandatory viewing laws and warns against expecting the images to change women’s minds. After all, as her study points out, 60% of abortion patients already have at least one child – and therefore, almost definitely have seen ultrasound images before – and most women who terminate their pregnancies do so because of the “material conditions of their lives.”

According to the same study,

The research has surfaced a few case studies in which women went to crisis pregnancy centers and were allegedly given false information about their gestational status. In some instances, women underwent ultrasounds and were told they were further along than they actually were, and were thus ineligible for abortions.

Mandatory ultrasound laws often have the effect of driving women to centers like this, which are some of the easiest places for women to get ultrasounds, but are agenda-driven and often not staffed with trained medical personnel.

This study seems poised to substantially debunk the maternal attachment myth behind ultrasound laws. When the results become widespread public knowledge, perhaps we can start to focus on the real reasons behind these laws. In the states where they are enforced, mandatory ultrasound viewing laws are a delay tactic aimed at preventing abortions by forcing women who want them to jump through time-consuming, expensive hoops so that by the time they have completed all of the legal requirements, they are too far along in their pregnancies to abort.

Weitz’s research confirms what pro-choice advocates have been saying all along: mandatory ultrasound laws are not based in scientific fact. They are not passed with women’s best interests at heart.  And a bill has been introduced in Pennsylvania.  Learn more about the threat by visiting the Legislative Action page on WLP’s web site and by following Pennsylvanians for Choice and We’ve Had Enough PA .  Take action here with petitions, signs, and other tools to make your voice heard. And Pennsylvania residents, remember to contact your representative in the house to express your opposition to HB 1077, Pennsylvania’s ultrasound bill.


Filed under Abortion, PA Legislature, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

VAWA Receives Only Partisan Support

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has never been partisan legislation. Signed into law in 1994, it was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2000, and again in 2005. But earlier this month, anti-violence advocates were shocked when VAWA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party line vote of 10-8, without a single committee Republican voting for the reauthorization.

Senate Republicans are concerned about two provisions in the new bill: one that expands allowances for undocumented victims of violence to obtain special visas, and one that prohibits resource centers that receive VAWA grant money from denying services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most anti-violence advocates consider those provisions necessary improvements. Immigrant women have always been more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than their citizen and legal- resident counterparts, with abusers often using their partner’s immigration status as a means of control – for example, by hiding or destroying important documents. Since its inception, the Violence Against Women Act has sought to aid undocumented victims of violence through what is called the VAWA Self-Petition, which allows battered spouses and their children to petition for lawful immigration status without their abuser’s knowledge or permission, freeing them from dependence on their abusers’ willingness to petition for lawful status on their behalf.

Meanwhile, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs surveyed service providers last year and found that 85% have worked with victims who were denied services because they were LGBT – among advocates who had worked with LGBT victims who were denied services, 91% witnessed such discrimination coming from domestic violence organizations, and 64% saw it coming from law enforcement.

Despite this data, Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, claims that “advocates of this [LGBT-nondiscrimination] provision haven’t produced data that shelters have refused to provide services for these reasons,” calling the protections “a solution in search of a problem… a political statement that shouldn’t be made on a bill that is designed to address actual needs of victims.”

Grassley proposed a substitute bill that, in addition to removing the additional protections for LGBT and undocumented victims of violence, called for a major reduction in authorized financing and elimination of the Justice Department Office on Violence Against Women, but the measure was defeated along the same party lines.

This sudden partisan turn came as a surprise to many of VAWA’s supporters. One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Senator Mike Crapo – who is not on the Judiciary Committee – is a Republican, as are four of its thirty-four co-sponsors. Democratic sponsor Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said, “I’ve had other senators tell me — Republican senators — that they just cannot understand how this happened.”

Supporters on both sides of the aisle are confident that VAWA will pass the Senate in a floor vote – but we can’t take chances. Call your senators today (if you call the capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121, you can ask to be transferred directly to your senator’s office) to find out where your lawmakers stand. Tell both of your senators that you are a voting constituent, that the issue of relationship violence is important to you regardless if the person being victimized is straight, gay, transgender, immigrant, or citizen, and that you believe elected officials should not prioritize his or her own feelings toward a group of Americans over addressing a pressing public safety issue.


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Filed under Domestic violence, LGBT, The New York Times, Violence Against Women

Thank You to our male friends, colleagues, brothers, fathers, and partners for Speaking Up!

Everyone expects to hear women speak up about reproductive health issues–specifically about protecting a woman’s right to control her own body – because women bear the burden  – pun intended –  if no one speaks up.  Women and women’s organizations have been vocal, visible and active in Pennsylvania, outraged by the ridiculous and indefensible HB 1077 that would require women to have an ultrasound 24 hours before having an abortion.   What we did not expect was the gentle, rational, articulate voice of a man from Franklin County, PA, who wrote to his local paper about this bill, chiding the legislators to be honest about their intent:

Pennsylvania HB 1077 is a good example of how controversial legislation can debase the entire system.  I consider myself pro-life. In my idea of a perfect world, abortion and capital punishment are used rarely and nobody dies because he can’t afford the medical treatment needed to keep him alive. If I personally knew someone considering abortion, I would try my damnedest to get her to consider other options.

I also consider myself pro-choice, by which I mean I would not try to keep a woman from having an abortion by calling the cops and having the government force her to have the baby. I have a whole long list of places where the government does not belong, and a womb is on it.

No government in history has ever stopped abortion. The prohibition of abortion works exactly as well as the prohibition of alcohol. Women with money have always had access to clean, safe abortions, and they always will. When we talk about criminalizing abortion, we’re talking about sending poor women to back-alley abortionists and desperate young women to whatever horrifying choices they can make. And sending police after them….

In politics, people get so convinced that what they want to do is righteous, and so frustrated that they can’t get it done, that they will tell any kind of lie and cut any corner to achieve their goal. That includes designing bills that try to dress up their intent in a big pile of fertilizer.

HB 1077 announces its fertilizer tendencies with its name. It’s called the Woman’s Right-To-Know Act, as if there are women out there who have been demanding more information from their abortion doctors but just can’t get answers.

The bill requires women to get an ultrasound at least 24 hours before an abortion. The ultrasound provider must make sure that the screen display faces the woman. Thankfully, it does not require anyone to grab her head and force her to watch. She must get copies of the ultrasound and deliver them to the abortion provider. The doctor must offer her the chance to watch an ultrasound of a similarly-aged fetus. No other medical procedure in this country has similar requirements.

A heartfelt thank you to this man, a teacher, who took the time to write such a thoughtful letter.  The public needs to hear from men as well as women on this issue.  Encourage your brothers, fathers, friends, husbands, partners, and colleagues to speak up and speak out in support of your rights!

Lastly, it was reported today that HB 1077 has been temporarily shelved, but please don’t be fooled by this tactic. In all likelihood the bill will find new life after the Pennsylvania election. So please call your representative in the Pennsylvania House (and have the men in your life call theirs) to oppose HB 1077. This legislation is deceptive, demeaning and offensive.

Other stories on HB 1077:

Pennsylvania House GOP leaders delay bill forcing women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds (Patriot News)

PA abortion measure shelved (Tribune-Review)

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Reproductive Rights, Women's health