Monthly Archives: October 2012

UPDATE RE: H.B. 2718 Would Penalize Women on TANF for Having Children Unless They Are Survivors of “Legitimate” Rape

UPDATE (10/26/12):  Within three days of the publication of this blog post, three of the six house sponsors of H.B. 2718 have removed their names from the sponsorship of the bill.  The prime sponsor, Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, defended the bill initially, but reversed her position three hours later, saying that she did not check the language of the three-page bill.  She has informed the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill will not go forward in its current form.

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney (10/23/12)

Led by State Representative RoseMarie Swanger of Lebanon County, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are targeting poor women and children with the introduction of House Bill 2718, which would prevent women who receive benefits under Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) from receiving an incremental increase in benefits due to the birth of a child.  As of October 17, 2012, the bill is in the Human Services Committee.

As the Women’s Law Project discussed in its report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, less than 2% of Pennsylvania’s residents receive TANF, and only 17.6% of Pennsylvania’s residents living below the official poverty line receive cash assistance benefits.  That latter percentage will be even lower now that Governor Tom Corbett has eliminated General Assistance, the welfare benefit program for individuals who were ineligible for TANF.  Most of the families who receive cash assistance through TANF live in counties where the monthly benefit is $403 for a family of three, often not enough for most families to meet their daily expenses.

Instead of helping these families who are struggling to make ends meet, H.B. 2718 seeks to reduce the assistance families receive by preventing a family from receiving additional TANF benefits if that family has a child while receiving benefits or while on a temporary period of ineligibility for TANF.  The result is a denial of assistance to the most needy and vulnerable, the newborn children themselves and their families.  This harmful bill serves as yet another example  of how hypocritical many of Pennsylvania’s politicians are in caring only about “life” before birth and not afterwards.

The bill contains a narrow exception for survivors of rape and incest that is so fraught with conditions that it is unlikely that many survivors will be able to avail themselves of it.  It is largely an empty gesture grounded in insulting beliefs about survivors of sexual violence.  H.B. 2718 does not use the term “legitimate rape” explicitly, the term used by Republican Todd Akin in support of his inaccurate and ignorant argument that women cannot become pregnant as the result of a rape, but it is built upon similar stereotypes of rape survivors.

In essence, this legislation creates a “legitimate rape” test based on misconceptions of how “real” rape victims behave, a test that determines whether a family may receive the incremental increase in benefits after the birth of a child.  If this legislation passes, a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape must send a signed statement to the Department of Public Welfare stating:

 [1] that she was a victim of rape or incest… [2] that she reported the crime, including the identity of the offender, if known, to a law enforcement agency or [3] in the case of incest where a pregnant minor is the victim, to the county child protective service agency… stating the name of the law enforcement agency or child protective service agency to which the report was made and the date such report was made.

This bill presumes that “real” rape victims report the crime to police and will have no trouble disclosing the details of the crime to the Department of Public Welfare, when research shows us that many victims never inform the police for a wide variety of reasons.  For example, as the Women’s Law Project wrote in its amicus brief in Reedy v. Evanson:

Decades of research has documented the fact that the vast majority of sexual assault victims do not report their sexual assault to police… Some of the most common reasons that victims give for not reporting are their fears that their report will not be taken seriously, they will not be believed, or they will be seen as responsible for their own assault. (internal citations omitted).

H.B. 2718 fails to reflect this reality of sexual assault, resulting in harm to survivors who become pregnant as a result of violence.

Pennsylvania’s women and children need laws that do not penalize and stereotype them.  H.B. 2718 must be defeated.

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Filed under PA Law, PA Legislature, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pregnancy, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, TANF, Welfare, Women's health, Working poor

Women have the power – why aren’t more of them using it?

Co-chairs of WomenVote PA, Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project, and Kate Michelman, President Emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America

AT A RECENT meeting a colleague of ours presented us with a challenge and posed the following questions:  Imagine if every woman of voting age participated in this upcoming presidential election? How would that determine the outcome of the election and the legislation and policy coming out of Washington?  What would happen – would anything really change?

The implications of such a reality are staggering.

For one, you would never hear any politician utter the phrase “legitimate rape” nor would a “transvaginal ultrasound” be prescribed by anyone other than a woman’s doctor; equal pay for equal work would be obvious; our reproductive rights would be championed by politicians, not jeopardized; support for efforts to end violence against women would be expanded; Social Security and Medicare would be stabilized and strengthened, not privatized and minimized.

Sadly, the question is hypothetical and the reality is quite the opposite – but we believe it doesn’t have to be. And we believe we can start by increasing the political participation of women here in Pennsylvania. In 2004, the Women’s Law Project, based in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, began an initiative called WomenVote PA. The goal was and is straightforward: Increase the participation of women in the electoral process. We are focused on making WomenVote PA a resource for voters to learn more about legislative and policy initiatives and, equally important, a community both in the real world and the digital world, a place that uses education, collaboration and information-sharing to mobilize women voters.

The focus on the November election all but guarantees more Americans will vote this November than in any election since 2008 (assuming voter-ID requirements don’t deprive them of their right to vote). In 2008, 6 million Pennsylvanians voted in the presidential race and yet just two years later, 4 million voted in the U.S. Senate race – a staggering 2 million Pennsylvanians who voted in 2008 failed to do so in 2010. That is likely over 1 million women not voting in off-year elections – and each of these off-year elections determine who sits in the Pennsylvania General Assembly as well as the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. Increasing that off-year participation number even slightly has real policy implications and real-world effects on women.

A reason behind WomenVote PA’s re-emergence has been what we will generously describe as politicians simply “not getting it.” Whether it is using the phrase “legitimate rape,” attempting to define rape only as “forcible rape,” blocking legislation in support of equal pay for equal work, rolling back our reproductive rights or limiting protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence, WomenVote PA is active in educating our network on the federal, state and local legislation that affects their lives. We believe in assisting our elected officials and policy makers in “getting it.”

And we have the data to back it up. WomenVote PA is an initiative of the Women’s Law Project, which has just published a remarkable study titled Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women, which will inform our education and outreach efforts. The study provides important research and data about how ongoing bias against women – in the home, in the workplace, in the classroom, and in the community – negatively impacts women’s health. We see it as a necessity that women’s voices are informed and are heard on issues that are essential to their health and well-being and that of their families.

The question “What if all women voted?” really does set the mind reeling – but in Pennsylvania WomenVote PA will focus our efforts on seeing what happens when more women vote. We believe much will.

This opinion piece appeared in many newspapers throughout Pennsylvania.  Please share this with your friends and remember to vote!

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Filed under 2012 Election, Abortion, Equal pay, Rape, Reproductive Rights, Sexual Assault, Women's health, WomenVote PA

Rainbow Alliance Scores Early Victory in Battle Over University of Pittsburgh’s Gendered Facilities Policy

The first volley in a challenge to the University of Pittsburgh’s gendered facilities policy was resolved in the challengers’ favor last week, when the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations denied the University’s motion to dismiss a gender discrimination complaint filed by the Rainbow Alliance, a student group represented by the Women’s Law Project and Drexel University Professor David S. Cohen. As a result of this ruling, Rainbow Alliance’s case against the University will move forward.

Rainbow Alliance filed its discrimination complaint in April 2012, after University officials announced that students and faculty would be permitted to use only those bathrooms and other gender-specific campus facilities that correspond to the gender on the user’s birth certificate. This policy has had a particularly harsh impact on transgender students and faculty, as well as people whose gender expression does not conform to traditional gender roles.

Transgender people who don’t want to run afoul of this policy must travel with their birth certificate within easy reach and be prepared to produce it if challenged at the bathroom door. Moreover, changing the sex designation on one’s birth certificate can be a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process for transgender people; and in some jurisdictions, it is impossible.  For anyone without a corrected birth certificate, the choices are grim: violate the policy and risk the consequences; go off campus to search for a restroom; or endure the humiliation and harassment involved with using a restroom reserved for the opposite gender.

To bar transgender people from bathroom facilities is to bar them from full participation in the University community. Congratulations to Rainbow Alliance for challenging this policy!

For more information about the Women’s Law Project in fighting against gender discrimination and LGBT rights, please visit our web site.

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Filed under Gender Discrimination, LGBT, Pittsburgh, Sex Discrimination, Sexual orientation