Tag Archives: Reproductive Rights

Pennsylvania is Failing Women

By Kate Michelman and Sue Frietsche

So much for Pennsylvania as the birthplace of freedom and democracy. A report last month from the Center for American Progress offered some alarming statistics about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the way   it treats the six million or so women who live here, assigning us a “C-” grade, and ranking our state 28th of the 50 states on women’s rights.

In fact, a quote from the report reads, “Pennsylvania stands out as one of the states that is among the worst in the nation for women. Across 36 factors of economic security, leadership, and health, Pennsylvania ranks 28th in the nation for how women are faring. This illustrates the long path ahead before women in Pennsylvania can get a fair shot at achieving economic security, reaching success, and living a healthy life.”

It goes from bad to worse in the report, whether it’s the fact that we scored a “D+” on economic factors for women (e.g., the 76 cents we still make to every dollar a man makes or the fact that 15% of us live in poverty), a “D” in leadership (our entire Congressional delegation contains one lone woman, and we hold less than 37% of the managerial positions in the state despite being 52% of the population), or a “C” in health (there is only one OB/GYN for approximately every 20,000 women in the state, we have the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the country, and our lawmakers are making it as difficult as possible for women to get reproductive health care).

It is beyond dispute that when the women of Pennsylvania do well, their families do well, their children thrive and communities prosper. That is reason enough for Pennsylvania to start climbing up from the bottom rungs of the 50 states.

But there is an even better reason, and simply put, it’s that Pennsylvania women deserve an equal shot at a good life. They deserve a state where they are treated equally at home, at work, and at school. They deserve a seat in the boardroom and at the table of government. They deserve a chance to live and work safely, with dignity – even when they’re pregnant or raising a family. They deserve the basic economic security essential to getting and staying healthy. They deserve the freedom to decide whether or not to have children in accordance with their beliefs, not under the boot of other people’s politics or religion.

So what can you do? Read the report, get motivated and do something about it. Get involved by getting smart about who you’re electing (or not electing) into office. Become an educated, vocal participant in exercising your civic duty, whether it’s visiting your legislators, writing letters to the editor, helping out at the polls – whatever inspires your civic passion. Above all, make your voice heard by voting, because Pennsylvania badly needs you in order to get back on the right track for our state’s women.

We’ve made great strides in the last 50 years, but a report like this shows we have miles to go. The women and men of Pennsylvania need to unite to effect real change for women, whether it is access to healthcare, economic security, or freedom from violence. And we need to pick up the pace while we’re at it. It’s simply taking too long to reach a place of true equality.

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Kate Michelman is co-chair of WomenVote PA, an organization that educates, engages, and mobilizes Pennsylvanians to make equality a reality for women. She is also president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.”

Sue Frietsche is a senior staff attorney in the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Economic Justice, economic security, Family Violence, Health Care, Pennsylvania, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Violence Against Women, Voter turnout, women voting, Women's health, Women's Law Project, women's rights, WomenVote PA, working mothers, working women

Reproductive Injustice Compensated in North Carolina

By Aly Mance, WLP Intern

North Carolina lawmakers decided last week that compensation will be paid to the victims of the state’s past eugenics program, run between 1929 and 1974. Eugenics is the belief that the human species can be improved by discouraging those perceived to possess inheritable undesirable traits from reproducing (negative eugenics) and/or encouraging reproduction by those persons perceived to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).

The North Carolina decision originates from a 2011 appointment by then-governor Beverly Perdue (D) of a taskforce to address North Carolina’s responsibility to its 7,600 eugenics victims.  Some victims were as young as 10 years old and nearly all were sterilized forcibly or with inadequate consent, according to the state.  The decision to compensate victims is the first of its kind, even though North Carolina is but one of over 30 states with a history of eugenics programs. North Carolina legislators have yet to decide the amount victims will receive in large part due to a lack of statistics on how many victims are still living and will be willing to come forward.

It is understandable that many individuals would not want to come forward. While reproductive justice is a topic of constant attention today, it has yet to become an issue without attached shame and stigma. A woman’s ability to choose whether or when to have children is a right, one furthered by technological, medicinal, and philosophical advances. Historically, however, those same sorts of advances were used through the eugenics movement to target such rights. North Carolina’s eugenics program was run by a state board, as well as counties, and authorized social workers to determine whether an individual should be sterilized. These decisions were informed by a philosophy that humanity would benefit from a forcible control of the gene pool. One major belief was that such policies could end poverty and reduce welfare needs, and such factors as IQ, perceived mental disability or sexual promiscuity were influential in the decisions.

Although eugenics programs were not explicitly designed to target individuals based on gender or race, 85% of victims were female and 40% were racial minorities. Such disproportion is vital to understanding the eugenics movement as it reflects our society. The sterilizations were an act of extreme social control and individuals’ stories shed light on the way the sterilization was a victimization. In many cases, victims were not told about the surgery, led to believe they were having appendectomies or other procedures only to find out their inability to have children years later. Others were given misleading information not indicating the permanence of their decision. In addition, threats of withdrawal of welfare funding from families was used to coerce these decisions.

North Carolina House speaker Thom Tillis (R) said of the state’s $10 million eugenics restitution budget: “I hope this provides some closure to what I believe is one of the darkest chapters in the state’s history.” While North Carolina’s attempts at amends are to be commended, in closing this dark chapter we must not forget it. Vital lessons can be learned through the story of the eugenics movement about valuing and protecting diversity, and especially the fundamental power of reproductive choices.

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Filed under forced sterilization, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

New study debunks myths about post-abortion emotions

By Hillary Scrivani, WLP Legal Intern

Some anti-choice groups are notorious for spreading lies about abortion in an effort to deter women from making informed medical decisions about their reproductive health.   Some of these lies include exaggerating or outright fabricating adverse emotional impacts that abortion can have on a woman.  A recent study performed by the University of California, San Francisco, debunks these myths by finding that the week after having an abortion, most women report feeling relieved.

The study, which involved more than 800 women who sought abortions between 2008 and 2010, asked the participants about their experiences with relief, happiness, regret, guilt, sadness and anger.  Ninety percent of women who had an abortion near the gestational age limit experienced relief.  More than eighty percent of those who initially experienced negative emotions after having an abortion still felt that it was the correct choice.  The study also looked at women who were denied abortion care, and found that these participants experienced “more regret and less relief” one week later than the women who obtained abortions.

This study shows why it is crucial that women be able to make decisions about their own reproductive health without being bombarded with anti-choice propaganda.  Though people are bound to experience a wide range of emotions when seeking any kind of medical treatment, it is unethical to mislead women with false information about emotional consequences regarding their healthcare decisions.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin – Let’s End This List

By Kaitlin Leskovac, WLP Summer Intern

Three weeks ago, under the watchful eyes of six male state legislators (photo), Governor Kasich (R) of Ohio signed the new state budget. As many have noted, the symbolism in this photo is marked, as Ohio’s new budget reads bankrupt for abortion rights. HB 59 contains drastic cuts in funding for Planned Parenthood; it threatens to withhold public funding for rape crisis clinics if clinic employees provide counseling on abortion care; it requires a woman seeking an abortion to have and pay for an ultrasound; and it prohibits transfer agreements between abortion clinics and public hospitals, a measure that is already threatening to close one of only twelve clinics in the state.

In the last couple of weeks, the Texas legislature passed the anti-abortion legislation that Senator Wendy Davis and thousands of other women and men, in Texas and across the country, have been fighting since “the people’s filibuster” late last month. This is the law that is predicted to close all but five of Texas’ abortion clinics. Three Planned Parenthood clinics have already announced they will have to close their doors come August, as a result of the law’s new mandates. As if this doesn’t go far enough, several legislators have sponsored HB 59, a fetal heartbeat bill that would bring the threshold for legal abortion down to 6 weeks.

North Carolina and Wisconsin have also passed recent anti-abortion legislation. In NC, the prohibitive cost of mandated upgrades threatens closure of all but one of the state’s 16 abortion clinics. In WI, AB 227 (aka SB 206) would require women seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound and require doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Opponents of the law say it would close two of only four clinics in the state.

And that is exactly the point.

What this recent wave of draconian anti-abortion legislation renders overwhelmingly clear is the importance of who our state legislators are. In the matter of abortion, where individual states retain enormous discretion, the actions of state legislatures can devastate abortion rights. This has been demonstrated time and time again: in Texas, in North Dakota, and in Pennsylvania. Therefore, every election, presidential or not, is essential to the security of women’s rights. However, voting rates in off year elections for state representatives remain notoriously low. Female voter participation in particular has been shown to drop by over a million votes in off year elections in Pennsylvania.

In evaluating state legislative actions against abortion rights, we must carefully consider who it is that we elect to our state legislatures. It’s no surprise that women’s rights are getting short shrift in many states. After all, women are still underrepresented in public office. Women compose only 18% of Congress, and it is hardly better at the state level. In Ohio, women make up 24% of the state legislature; in Texas, 21%; in North Carolina, 22%; and in Wisconsin, 25%.The dearth of women in our state assemblies matters when it comes to setting legislative priorities and countering efforts to restrict access to abortion, not because all women support abortion rights—they do not—and not because electing more women to public office is the silver bullet to end the “war on women.” Rather, as Senator Davis so eloquently demonstrated, the voices of women who are directly affected by public policy have the power to inform the public debate and transform how legislatures approach issues of concern to women. The key is to elect a legislature that is diverse in experiences, viewpoint, and perspective.  If we want to change the outcome, that is, put a stop to threats against reproductive rights, it matters who the players are.

Fact: Women compose only 18% of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Consider this in the larger picture of state governments, which nationwide have become more conservative since 2010. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the first half of 2013, states enacted 43 abortion restrictions, as many as were enacted in the entire year of 2012. With trends like these, it will take a long time to pin down the ever-evolving standard for the nation’s “strictest” abortion laws.

Whether or not these recent anti-abortion laws are ultimately challenged and/or struck down, in passing these measures, state legislators demonstrate an overwhelming lack of respect for women’s choices. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker claims the new bill, “improves a woman’s ability to make an informed choice.” Choice is the operative word here because ultimately, these laws preclude it. A woman can’t very well choose to have an abortion if she is unable to access an abortion.

In the first half of 2013, the efforts to restrict women’s reproductive rights were astounding, and continued and increasing counter efforts are needed to turn the tide. The image of Governor Kasich of Ohio surrounded by only men as he signed the new state budget reads as a lot more than the beginning of a new fiscal year. It reads as a need to continue fighting to secure women’s reproductive rights in every state. It reads as a fundamental lack of diversity in the vast majority of leadership positions in society. And it reads as a need to remind ourselves of the significance of our votes, and the relationship between the who and the what in the matter of legislative priorities. After all, as Ohio State Rep. Connie Pillich (D) summed it up, is your uterus a budget issue?

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Democracy, PA Legislature, Planned Parenthood, Politics, Reproductive Rights, Voter turnout, women in Congress, women in legislature, women voting, Women's health

California Female Inmate Sterilizations: Why We’re Appalled, But Not Surprised.

By Rebecca Ryan, WLP Law Intern

Earlier this week, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) released a report finding that California prisons had coercively sterilized at least 148 women between 2006 and 2010.

According to the report, doctors contracted by the state coerced women incarcerated at the California Institute for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla to undergo tubal ligation under conditions deemed inappropriate to give informed consent, such as during labor or childbirth.  Medical staff targeted pregnant women whom they considered likely to reenter the system or who already had more than one child.

Both federal and state laws ban the sterilization of inmates, if federal funds are used, because prisons are an inherently coercive atmosphere.  Additionally, the rules and regulations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation expressly prohibit medically unnecessary tubal ligations, unless it is prescribed by the inmate’s physician and approved by the medical authorization review committee and the health care review committee.  The CIR report states that despite these regulations, the committees did not receive a single request for approval.  In fact, according to the report, it seems the majority of doctors were completely unaware of their obligation to obtain permission from the committees prior to performing the surgeries.

Psychologist Daun Martin told CIR that she looked for ways around the regulations.  She believed the rules were “unfair to women” and that tubal ligation was empowering for these women by giving them the same options that are available to women who are not in prison.  However, her argument relies upon the presumption that these women had an actual, bona fide choice in the matter; the coercive, repetitive, and deceptive ways that medical professionals approached and reapproached inmates about sterilization are not experienced by non-incarcerated women.

CIR reported that the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedures.   Dr. James Heinrich considered the costs to be minimal, explaining to CIR, “[o]ver a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as [these women] procreated more.”

His thinking echoes the sordid history of eugenics in California, which resulted in a 2003 apology by then-Governor Gray Davis.  Forced sterilizations were a part of the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, legitimized by laws imposing sterilization upon individuals considered to be “feeble-minded” and “defective.”  It was thought that such traits were hereditary and could be eradicated from society, thereby protecting the public health and purse-strings.

One such Virginia eugenics law led to the despicable, but relatively unknown, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell.  In this 1927 case, an 18 year old “feeble-minded” woman was ordered by the state to undergo sterilization because she came from a “feeble-minded” mother and was herself the single mother of a “feeble-minded” child.  Justice Holmes, refusing to strike down the law, wrote:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.  Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Like the reasoning behind the sterilizations occurring in this century, the basis underlying this decision is that the “strength of the state” trumps women’s autonomy.

Less than twenty years after Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court would revisit nonconsensual sterilization and first recognize the constitutional right to reproductive freedom.  In Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942), the Court contemplated the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s “Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act,” which mandated that “habitual criminals” be sterilized, if doing so would cause no detriment to his or her general health.  Habitual Criminals were persons who had been convicted of three or more felonies involving “moral turpitude,” inside or outside Oklahoma, and who were sentenced to imprisonment in Oklahoma.

Striking down the law, the Court explained that a sterilized individual has been “forever deprived of a basic liberty.”  The Court reasoned, “[w]e are dealing here with legislation which involves one of the basic civil rights of man . . . . The power to sterilize, if exercised, may have subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects.  In evil or reckless hands it can cause races or types which are inimical to the dominant group to wither and disappear.”  The Court’s fears would soon come true.

In the 1960s and 1970s, California coerced many Latina women into sterilizations for the same reasons articulated by Justice Holmes.  Anxiety about overpopulation, welfare, and state dependency which fueled Bell and Skinner era legislation and practices, coupled with racism and xenophobia, influenced medical professionals to intimidate women into sterility.  Just as the so-called “feebleminded” were often presumed to be “loose” women who would be dependent upon the state, Mexican-origin women in California were seen as hyperbreeders and “welfare mothers in waiting.”

As a result, Latina women were questioned about sterilization during labor or childbirth, not spoken to in their preferred language or with the aid of an interpreter, and repeatedly presented with consent forms.  The colloquial “getting your tubes tied,” sounds reversible and many women erroneously believed, or were told, that they could later be “untied” and fully functional.  The medical necessity of the procedure was either fabricated or not discussed.  Some hospitals went so far as to condition the delivery of the woman’s child at the hospital on her agreeing to be sterilized, or threatening the discontinuance of welfare benefits.

A group of women who had been sterilized in California hospitals mobilized and sued their sterilizers in Madrigal v. Quilligan (1978).  The judge ultimately found for the defendants, stating that the doctors had acted in good faith and would not have executed the procedure unless they actually believed the patient understood and requested it.  Although the women did not win their case, it did result in significant changes to federal and state regulations, including, at minimum, a 72-hour consent and waiting period, bilingual consent forms, and clear explanations that welfare benefits are not conditioned on sterilization.

These new laws should have been the end of the deceptive and discriminatory practice of coerced sterilization; but, as the CIR report exposed, history continues to repeat itself with another class of vulnerable women—the imprisoned.

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Filed under Incarceration, Prison Industry, Reproductive Rights, Women in prisons, Women's health

Texas Filibuster Raises National Spotlight on Restrictive State Abortion Laws

By Kaitlin Leskovac, WLP Summer Intern

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (D)  led an epic filibuster Tuesday night protesting a sweeping and restrictive anti-abortion bill, Texas Senate Bill 537. Holding the Senate floor for approximately 11 hours, Davis’ awe-inspiring display of conviction was successful in delaying a vote on the bill, with the expiration of the special legislative session at midnight. However, Governor Rick Perry (R), who called the special session and put the bill on the agenda, has already called a second special session so lawmakers may consider the bill again.

Texas Senate Bill 537 contains some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion regulations. If passed, Texas Senate Bill 537 threatens closure of all but 5 of Texas’ 42 abortion clinics. The bill bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy; requires all abortion clinics to meet standards for ambulatory surgical centers; and mandates all doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Texas is not alone; these types of regulation are surfacing in state legislatures around the nation.

In June of 2012, new regulations for Pennsylvania abortion clinics took effect as part of Act 122, signed into law by Governor Corbett in late 2011. Similar to parts of the Texas legislation, this new law requires freestanding facilities performing surgical abortions to conform to financially burdensome and medically unnecessary requirements associated with ambulatory surgical centers. These upgrades are unnecessary to provide safe abortion care. The act is part of ongoing efforts to restrict access to abortion care.

Two weeks ago, Governor Tom Corbett (R) signed HB 818 limiting abortion coverage under health care insurance policies offered in the federal insurance marketplace starting next year, as per the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The law will prohibit private insurance coverage for abortion, even in cases of medical emergencies endangering the health of the pregnant woman, and even in cases of fetal anomaly incompatible with life. This provision is an additional restriction on abortion rights and disproportionately affects poor women’s access to important medical care.

The present unavailability of Medicaid and the recently enacted ban on insurance coverage of abortion in the exchange will make hospital-based abortion services too costly for many women in comparison to clinic-based care. In Pennsylvania, over 90% of abortion care is delivered by the frail network of 14 non-hospital-based freestanding abortion providers. With limited abortion coverage and rising costs, PA’s restrictive abortion policies threaten women’s right to choose and have a costly impact on women’s health. Accessibility to safe, legal abortion services is essential to preventing dangerous illegal abortions.

The victory of abortion rights advocates in Texas has implications nationwide. That hundreds of supporters came to rally at the Capitol, tens of thousands more watched the filibuster online, with an outpouring of support on Twitter sends a clear message to legislators. The filibuster demonstrates that abortion rights are in fact extremely important to many women and men who will not be silent while policymakers enact more dangerous and far-reaching restrictions. Davis’ testimony detailed the impact of these restrictions on the lives of real women. We in Pennsylvania can take inspiration from the women of Texas and join them in fighting back hard.

For more on the national landscape of abortion laws, check out this must-see graphic.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Health Care, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

Pennsylvania Passes Yet Another Restriction on Women’s Health Care

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly gave final approval to House Bill 818, a measure that would force insurance plans that cover abortion care to stop providing that coverage in the state health insurance exchange. The Legislature also rejected an amendment to the bill that would have allowed insurers to provide coverage when abortion care is necessary to preserve a woman’s health.  Governor Corbett signed the bill as originally proposed into law on June 17, and it will take effect as the new health care exchange comes online later this year.

The new law states that insurance providers operating in the Pennsylvania exchange may only provide coverage of abortion care when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or if the pregnancy would cause imminent death. This ignores the medical needs of women who are not in immediate risk of death but for whom continuing a pregnancy could result in serious harm or health risks.  The proposed amendment that the Legislature rejected would have at least protected these women for whom abortions are crucial to maintaining their health.

HB 818’s supporters tried to argue that the bill simply prohibits “taxpayer-funded” abortions, but abortion care was already ineligible for public funding.  Unable to ban abortion entirely, our policymakers appear determined to make abortion care unaffordable and inaccessible. This misguided approach to health care not only infringes on women’s rights but could also endanger a woman’s health.

Though it passed, the bill faced spirited opposition in both chambers of the General Assembly. One of the dissenters, freshman Representative Erin Molchany, told her colleagues in the first speech she ever made on the house floor, “House Bill 818 is a bad bill, full of unintended consequences . . . this house is making decisions for women in this state—deeply personal decisions.  While all of us come from different professional backgrounds, we are all legislators—not medical professionals, not insurance companies, and for the most part not women.”

Most people agree that politicians shouldn’t be allowed to take away a woman’s health coverage just because of where she gets her insurance.  People rely on their health insurance to provide coverage for unexpected medical situations, and all women deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they can obtain the health care they need—whether or not that includes an abortion.

It is a shame that Governor Corbett didn’t take a page out of conservative Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s playbook.  Late last year, Gov. Snyder vetoed a measure similar to HB 818 because “insurance companies and private buyers of insurance should be able to conduct their own affairs.”  It is a sorry day when even free-market politics and the interests of private businesses have to take a backseat to restricting women’s health care and infringing on women’s autonomy.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Health Care, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Philadephia Daily News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Reproductive Rights, Women's health