Monthly Archives: August 2012

Rape is never legitimate; neither is the control of a uterus by anyone other than its owner.

By Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, Women’s Law Project

Republican Todd Akin’s astounding remark — inaccurate and insensitive on SO many levels — that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” is only the latest evidence of the twisted beliefs about rape, pregnancy, and abortion held by right-wing so-called pro-life legislators.

First, these truly are just beliefs.  They are accepted and asserted without factual basis, proof, or even examination by any rational thought process, much less any rudimentary knowledge of human biology.

Second, Akin’s comment goes far toward explaining attitudes held by him and his ilk.  This is interesting because there is a strong correlation between rape laws and laws restricting abortion.

Laws about rape and abortion originated with men for the benefit of men, collectively and personally.   Women had no say in these laws, and therefore had no say over their own bodies and powers of reproduction.   Motivated to assure male social dominance in all realms, the men behind these laws paid lip service to the need to protect women—as they continue to do now—but have no genuine concern for women, the lives they lead, the responsibilities they bear, and the decisions they need to make in their own interests.

Rape laws have an ignominious history.  They were developed to protect male property interests.  What property, you ask?   An unmarried woman’s virginity.   A woman’s virginity was considered the property of her father, which he then was permitted to give (sell?) to the man who would become her husband.  Giving a daughter in marriage was a transfer of inheritance rights and property.  Rape was the theft of that property.   It was not an assault crime; the victim’s bodily integrity was irrelevant.  The essential element was controlling female reproductive capacity to protect male property interests.

Rape was defined only as penal penetration of the vagina by force of an unmarried virgin.  Penetration of any other orifice by any other body part or object and penetration of a married woman or a man was not rape.   While vestiges of these archaic notions continue to exist in some of our state laws, massive law reform has largely criminalized behavior that involves unwanted penetration of body parts, without consent and without force, and regardless of gender.  Significantly, within the last year, the FBI updated the definition of rape in its Uniform Crime Reporting system to reflect the broader definition of rape reflected both in current state laws and in public understanding of this heinous crime.

Restrictive abortion laws in America were similarly born of men for men.  In colonial America and at the time that our constitution was written, abortion was perfectly legal until “quickening”, much to the chagrin of today’s strict constructionists.  This was true until the last third of the nineteenth century.   Restrictions developed out of two campaigns, both male-led and for male benefit.  At that time, women’s gynecological and obstetric care was provided by other women who were midwives and homeopathic healers.  In order to ensure their domination of the practice of medicine, doctors (almost entirely male at that time) began to push women out.  As part of this effort, the doctors claimed that abortion was unsafe.  While there was some truth to that—sanitary conditions in many kinds of medical procedures being haphazard and some concoctions sold to induce abortions being nothing less than poison – safety was not the doctors’ real motivation.

The second front was led by U.S. Postmaster General, Anthony Comstock, a fanatical latter-day puritan, whose personal religious convictions caused him to lead an anti-obscenity campaign against the transmission through the U.S. mail service of information about abortion and contraception.  The efforts by the doctors and Comstock led to the enactment of laws criminalizing both the performance of abortions and the dissemination of information about contraception and abortion.  In essence, men were controlling women by keeping them pregnant.

Todd Akin represents the ongoing drive to control women.  He is ignorant and dangerous, and he is not alone.  The 2012 Republican National Convention platform outlaws abortion entirely, without even mentioning rape.  Make no mistake about it, people who have archaic ideas about rape and restrictive views about abortion are in fact motivated to control women’s lives and health.

You can learn more about changes in the definition of Rape and WLP’s work here.


Filed under Abortion, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

WLP Celebrates the 10 Year Anniversary of Second-Parent Adoption in Pennsylvania

From WLP Staff

Join the Women’s Law Project on Saturday, August 18th from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh (Shadyside), 605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA  for a potluck picnic celebration featuring food, fun and a chance to share what family means to you. Come enjoy a moon bounce, games (with fantastic prizes!), delicious burgers/veggie burgers, Rita’s Italian Ice and family photos. Register for Event!

August 20, 2012 marks the ten-year anniversary of the recognition of second-parent adoption in Pennsylvania, the result of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002).  The Women’s Law Project (WLP) has particular cause to celebrate because of the pivotal role it played in helping same-sex parents each gain the right, through adoption, to have legally secure relationships with the children they nurture and love.

Before second-parent adoption was legalized across Pennsylvania, same-sex couples faced many obstacles in creating and protecting their families.  Women who had given birth to children in heterosexual marriages prior to entering same-sex relationships often had to fight to gain even partial custody of their children.  In fact, the courts were reluctant to recognize one, let alone two, gay or lesbian parents as legally fit.  Regardless of how same-sex couples became parents, they faced a major challenge:  only one partner in a same-sex couple could legally be “the” parent to a particular child.  While it might look as though the child had two mommies or two daddies, technically, only one partner was the official and legal parent.  This forced partners who were co-parents to choose between them who would play this role and have all the rights and obligations attendant on it.  This is a wrenching and divisive experience for even the most stable couples.

Educated, financially secure couples knew enough and had the resources to pursue legal “work-arounds” such as powers of attorney, advance directives, and other artificial surrogates for full parental rights.  In the absence of these cumbersome and costly measures, the non-legal parent could be excluded from making important decisions about the child’s life—such as approving medical care for the child—or even from just picking the child up from daycare or school.  Furthermore, if the partners separated, the non-legal parent could easily be denied visitation with the child and could not be made to pay child support.  If the non-legal parent were to die, the children would not be entitled to receive social security survivor benefits.  If the deceased parent had had the wherewithal to make a will, the children (and the surviving partner, without benefit of marriage) would be still required to pay much higher Pennsylvania inheritance taxes reserved for legal strangers; without a will, the partner and children would receive nothing.

Creating a family when the law did not consider same-sex parents with children as a natural or normal family was so complex a prospect that it required a handbook, a need filled in 1992 by Dabney Miller, longtime Associate Director of the Women’s Law Project, social worker, and adoptive parent, who, assisted by local adoption counselor Abby Ruder, wrote exactly that—a handbook on the rights of lesbian and gay parents in Pennsylvania to help couples negotiate the legal hurdles they faced.  This handbook became an invaluable resource for both parents and advocates, and led to the formation of a working group of lawyers, parents, advocates, and social workers who focused exclusively on making second-parent adoption a reality in Pennsylvania.

Miller recalls that, as the working group at the WLP began to ramp up, “a judge in York County granted a second-parent adoption, pretty quietly, no fanfare but not privately, not secretively.”  Encouraged by this development, members of the WLP’s working group began applying for second-parent adoptions in Philadelphia County and succeeded.  But not all counties in the state were open to this option.  When two families whose petitions for second-parent adoption were denied in other counties decided to appeal, the WLP and working group members stepped in again.  The WLP and the Support Center for Child Advocates provided support in the form of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs, garnering support from children’s and women’s rights groups, attorneys and bar associations, religious organizations, day care and social service providers, and adoption agencies.  This creative collaboration paid off in August 2002 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion in In re R.B.F., 803 A.2d 1195 (Pa. 2002), holding that second-parent adoption is indeed permissible under the Pennsylvania Adoption Act, thus making it available in all counties in the state.

Despite this dramatic success, much remains to be done.  Lesbian and gay couples must be educated about the importance of securing second-parent adoption, and they must be able to afford an attorney to guide them through the process.  Though second-parent adoption is now legal across the commonwealth, there is no uniform process for handling these cases county to county.  Furthermore, second-parent adoption is not legal in every U.S. state, and adoptions recognized here many times will not be recognized elsewhere.  See videos and keep abreast of developments on this subject through the WLP website at

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Filed under LGBT, Parenthood, Parenting, Pittsburgh, Sexual orientation

DOJ Issues Ground-breaking Consent Decree Addressing Gender Bias

By Carol E. Tracy, Esq. and Terry L. Fromson, Esq.

The Women’s Law Project (WLP) commends the Department of Justice (DOJ) on its ground-breaking consent decree with the City of New Orleans, which addresses gender bias in the police response to and investigation of reports of sexual assault and domestic violence.  This consent decree followed the March 2011 publication of the DOJ’s report on its investigation of the NOPD.  The WLP identified the NOPD as one of the many police departments which have chronically failed to respond to rape complaints when WLP testified before a Congressional committee in September, 2010. 

In March 2011, the DOJ released a report (pdf) of its investigation of the NOPD. The report addressed many areas of policing but, for women, the most dramatic component was its landmark finding of gender bias in police practice.    

Specifically, the DOJ found that:

NOPD has systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes. We find that in situations where the Department pursues sexual assault complaints, the investigations are seriously deficient, marked by poor victim interviewing skills, missing or inadequate documentation, and minimal efforts to contact witnesses or interrogate suspects. The documentation we reviewed was replete with stereotypical assumptions and judgments about sex crimes and victims of sex crimes, including misguided commentary about the victims’ perceived credibility, sexual history, or delay in contacting the police.

The consent decree, announced by DOJ on July 24, 2012 includes significant steps towards reforming the NOPD’s response to rape complaints. New Orleans has agreed to clarify its procedures for responding to sexual assault, train officers to appropriately classify crimes and conduct interviews in a sensitive manner, increase supervision, and most significantly, establish a committee that includes community advocates to annually review all sexual crimes classified as unfounded or miscellaneous, as well as a random sample of open investigations of sexual assaults.

Both the report and the consent decree establish benchmarks which other cities with similar entrenched practices should take note of and implement. For over a decade, the Women’s Law Project has effectively advocated or improved police response to sexual and domestic violence in Philadelphia and led the reform effort that resulted in the FBI’s recent expansion of the definition of rape for the Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Following the issuance of its report, the DOJ invited the WLP to share with its staff the strategies that it helped to implement in Philadelphia to bring about reform. WLP is gratified to see that the consent decree incorporates several of these reforms. To read more about gender bias in law enforcement and WLP’s continuing work in this area, please see WLP’s 2012 report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women (pdf).

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Filed under Gender Discrimination, Government, Rape, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

The Affordable Care Act Extends No-Cost Preventive Care to Women

Nikki Ditto, WLP Intern

Wednesday, August 1st  is an important day for women’s health. After this date, all new insurance plans must cover certain women’s preventive health services, including contraceptives, without co-pays or deductibles. This represents an essential change in access to health care for women. Women, who have long been subjected to denial of access to insurance coverage for essential health services are more likely than men to forgo needed health care due to cost.  The number of women who can access these benefits will continue to expand as older plans lose their “grandfathered” status and become subject to the ACA’s preventive health services requirements.  For now, many college and university students will benefit if they receive health insurance through their schools, as those plans usually begin their health plan years around the start of the school year.  Other insurance policies that are renewed with substantially different content (usually on January 1st) will also comply with the new law.

Women whose insurance plans fall under the new guidelines will now have access to a number of services that will “keep them healthier and…catch potentially serious conditions at an earlier, more treatable stage,” according to Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. This includes annual well-woman visits, as well as screening and counseling for HPV, HIV, and STIs. Insurance policies will also have to cover testing for gestational diabetes, breastfeeding support, and domestic violence screening and counseling. Perhaps most significantly, women will also have access to birth control and other forms of contraception without a co-pay, though exceptions have been made for religious institutions and self-funded plans. These services add to the no-cost coverage that has already been implemented for pap smears and mammograms.

The Department of Health and Human Services reports that 20.4 million women have been and will be affected by this expansion in coverage. A startling 52% of women “report delaying needed medical care because of cost,” a number that will be decreased under the ACA. The Women’s Law Project (WLP) explained in its report Through the Lens of EQUALITY: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women that “lack of access to the full range of women’s health care has many adverse health consequences.”  Many women are unable to afford contraceptives, which range from $15 to more than $1,000 up front depending on the methodThe contraceptive coverage rule will increase women’s access to these methods of contraception, which will help them plan pregnancies and address other health concerns, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, for which birth control pills are a common treatment.

Controversy continues over the provision requiring employer-provided insurance plans to cover birth control and other forms of contraception, including sterilization. As WLP blogged about today, twenty-four legal challenges are still pending in courts. The ACA already provides exceptions for religious institutions, and allows religiously affiliated businesses to push cost and administration on to the insurance companies. These accommodations, however, have not stopped the debate. WLP has blogged before about lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of the provision on the basis of the First Amendment. As Terry Fromson, WLP’s Managing Attorney, explained, “the First Amendment does not give church leaders any right to impose their beliefs about contraception on women.”

Overall, the implementation of this provision of the ACA represents an important and necessary change to the way we view women and women’s health. Reproductive and sexual health must be seen as central to ensuring the health and well-being of all women, and not as a secondary concern. America will be healthier if women are given better access to the services necessary to care for themselves and their families, and increasing access to contraception is a step in the right direction.

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Filed under Contraception, First Amendment, Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Maternity Coverage, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Women's health

Courts Come to Different Decisions on the ACA’s Provision Requiring Some Employers to Cover Contraception

Mary Pat Dwyer, WLP Law Intern

Two federal district court judges ruled recently on claims regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provision which requires that employers providing health insurance to their employees cover reproductive health services, including birth control, emergency contraception, and other procedures.

On Tuesday, July 17, Judge Warren Urbom of the District of Nebraska dismissed a suit brought by several states, Catholic groups, and individual plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the provision.  The groups argued that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of association gave them the right to deny their employees coverage for these essential services.  The states claimed that the groups and others like them would cease to provide insurance for their employees rather than comply with the law, which in turn would increase the number of Medicaid applicants and adversely affect state budgets.

Judge Urbom found that the plaintiffs did not have standing to pursue their claim that the mandate violated the first amendment for two reasons.  First, the federal government has delayed enforcement of the provision until August 2013.  Because of this, the groups are not facing any imminent requirement to comply with the law, and thus cannot show the “direct and immediate harm” that plaintiffs must show in order to have the courts consider their claims. Second, the states claims that they would face increases in Medicaid costs were based purely on “layers of conjecture,” and had no factual grounding. Furthermore, Judge Urbom pointed out that the Department of Health and Human Services is currently considering revising the definition of religious employers under the ACA. Because of the potential for revision, none of the plaintiffs could show that they would ever be impacted by the provision.

On Friday, July 27, Judge John Kane of the District of Colorado reached a drastically different conclusion when he granted an injunction prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the provision against Hercules Industries Inc., a private corporation. Judge Kane found that for the Catholic plaintiffs, who serve as co-owners and board of directors of a company that manufactures HVAC equipment, the obligation to comply with the law threatened their right to exercise their religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Katherine Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, expressed disappointment with Judge Kane’s decision, but also stated that she is “confident that as this case moves through the courts, the policy that most health insurance plans cover contraception will be upheld.” Sebelius also reaffirmed the administration’s position that “health decisions should be between women and their doctors, not their employers.”

Twenty-four similar lawsuits claiming that the requirement violates the First Amendment are still pending in courts across the country. These suits undermine the security of women’s health care, and it is crucial that the courts recognize the grave importance of comprehensive health care access. As WLP highlighted in Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, women who face restricted access to contraceptive care suffer serious health risks as a result. Women who are unable to effectively and safely plan their pregnancies are more likely to experience pregnancy complications. For women who have preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, coronary artery disease, or arthritis, unintended pregnancies can be life threatening. Additionally, children born of unplanned pregnancies, face increased risks of premature birth, low birth, poor nutrition, and infant mortality.

Neither judge ruled on the constitutionality of the provision. However, as we have previously explained, the federal contraceptive coverage rule does not violate the First Amendment because it is a neutral law that does not target a particular faith and applies to everyone equally.  It is constitutional.

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Filed under Contraception, Emergency Contraception, Family Planning, Federal Court, First Amendment, Health Care, Health insurance, Reproductive Rights, Women's health