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4/22/2014 - US Ranks 16th in 2014 Social Progress Index

The Social Progress Imperative recently released its 2014 Social Progress Index, ranking the United States in 16th place among 132 countries.

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a Republican who led the report team, told CNN's Fareed Zakaria that he was surprised by the ranking. "I think this was not the picture of America that I think many of us Americans have," said Porter.

The United States ranked particularly low in health and wellness, coming in at 70th place, and ecosystem sustainability, 69th place. In the category of access to basic knowledge, the US ranked 39th, although it ranked 1st in access to advanced education, perhaps showing a relative lack of access to primary and secondary education among vulnerable populations.

In terms of access to information and communication, the US ranked surprisingly low at 23rd place, coming in 83rd on mobile telephone subscriptions, 21st on freedom of the press, and 17th on internet use. "At some level in America, we have incredible access to information and communication," said Porter, "but if you look at objective measures of whether that's penetrated very broadly throughout our population and to, really, all of our citizens, that's where we start to come up short."

The index evaluated 132 countries on 54 social and environmental indicators, taking into account basic human needs, foundations of well-being, and opportunity. It defines social progress as "the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential" [PDF].

Using this framework, the three top-performing countries on social progress are New Zealand, Switzerland, and Iceland. The rest of the top ten include several Northern European nations, Canada and Australia. The United States falls into the second tier of countries, in company with Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and France. Yemen and Chad fell in the fifth and lowest-performing tier.

The index demonstrates that economic development alone is not sufficient to explain social progress outcomes. While the index shows a positive correlation with economic performance, there are other factors in play.

"A society which fails to address basic human needs, equip citizens to improve their quality of life, erodes the environment, and limits opportunity for its citizens is not succeeding. Economic growth without social progress results in lack of inclusion, discontent, and social unrest," the report states.

Its authors aims to create a more holistic framework for measuring national performance that can be used by leaders, and they envision a "world in which social progress sits alongside economic prosperity as the twin scorecards of success."


4/22/2014 - Florida Supreme Court Recognizes Anti-Discrimination Protections for Pregnant Workers

The Florida State Supreme Court ruled last week that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under Florida employment law.

The 6-1 decision allows Peguy Delva to proceed with her lawsuit against her employer, real estate developer Continental Group. Delva alleged that her employer, real estate developer Continental Group, denied her extra shifts after she became pregnant and failed to reschedule her to work after maternity leave. A lower court dismissed Delva's case, finding that the Florida Civil Rights Act did not extend to discrimination in employment on the basis of pregnancy. The Florida Supreme Court rejected that ruling, noting that the Florida law does provide protection against discrimination based on sex and that this protection extends to pregnancy. The court cited similar rulings in Massachusetts and Minnesota.

The Florida decision puts Florida state law in line with the federal 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act - whose passage was championed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Eleanor Smeal, then-president of NOW. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act explicitly recognizes discrimination against pregnant women as a form of sex discrimination and prevents employers from legally discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, career development, or benefits. "Florida law will now finally recognize the state of the law as established by the federal government," said Smeal, now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act expanded economic opportunities for women, helped women maintain job stability, protected women against lost wages and costs associated with job loss, and contributed to families' overall financial well-being. Yet, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace persists. A report released last summer by the National Women's Law Center demonstrated that many pregnant women are not given even basic accommodations during pregnancy, and many pregnant workers especially those in lower-paying jobs or jobs traditionally held by men are fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they request these adjustments.

In response to this continued discrimination, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Robert Casey (D-PA) introduced the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act last May. The Act would clarify that pregnant women are guaranteed the same workplace protections that are in place for other workers temporarily unable to perform job duties without reasonable accommodations. The Act would also prohibit an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to use unpaid leave if she is able to work with a reasonable accommodation.


4/21/2014 - Arizona Governor Signs Bill Allowing Suprise Inspections of Abortion Clinics

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law last week allowing state health authorities to conduct surprise inspections of abortion clinics without a warrant.

HB 2284 repeals an Arizona law that requires a judge to give approval for inspections of abortion clinics. Department of Health Services officials will now be able to inspect any clinic during business hours, even without reasonable cause.

Activists are concerned the law will put the state's nine clinics at risk of abuse by anti-abortion legislators. "House Bill 2284 does nothing but open the door to provider and patient harassment," Bryan Howard, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said in a statement.

The law was written by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative think tank behind three other abortion laws that courts have ruled against. One of them, a law putting restrictions on medication abortions, went into effect earlier this month, but a federal court issued a temporary injunction against it shortly after.

The law could go into effect as early as next week. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona expects there will be a legal challenge to the law, but is unsure if the organization will participate.


4/21/2014 - Alaska Governor Signs Law Restricting Definition of Medically Necessary Abortions

Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell signed a bill last week limiting which abortions can be labeled medically necessary by a doctor and therefore covered by Medicaid under the federal Hyde Amendment. The original bill included provisions for family planning services, but the state House removed them.

SB 49 requires doctors to select a reason that the procedure is medically necessary from an approved list of 21 reasons. The list includes threat to the life or physical health of a patient, but does not include anything about mental health. Anchorage Senator Hollis French expects the bill to be placed on hold in the courts "because it's contrary to our Constitution."

"SB 49 is a blatant attempt to put politicians between low-income women and access to abortion, and by removing the Medicaid Women's Health Program, the legislature has made it clear that their only interest is restricting women's pregnancy decisions--not promoting women's health or reducing unintended pregnancies," said Jessica Cler, Alaska Public Affairs Manager for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, in a statement.

"There shouldn't be a list at all," Erik House, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest told RH Reality Check. "It's up to women and their doctors to make these personal medical decisions--not an arbitrary list drafted by politicians and bureaucrats in Juneau."


4/18/2014 - Texas Hospitals Revoke Admitting Privileges to Abortion Providers

Reproductive health access in Texas continues to vanish in the wake of HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that, among other things, requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges in order to keep their clinics open. Three Texas abortion providers this week had their hospital admitting privileges revoked at nearby hospitals after abortion opponents threatened the hospitals with negative publicity.

Foundation Surgical Hospital of El Paso revoked Dr. Pamela Richter's temporary admitting privileges last week without notice or explanation. Dr. Richter, who provides abortion care at Reproductive Services in El Paso, immediately filed for a temporary restraining order, but federal district judge Lee Yeakel denied her request Wednesday afternoon. Although Judge Yeakel said he believed "irreparable harm" would be caused to the over one million people living in the clinic's vicinity, he ultimately ruled that plaintiffs had not met the legal requirements for the restraining order.

"Forcing patients to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic does absolutely nothing to improve any 'health or safety measures. In fact, it does exactly the opposite," Heather Busby, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told ThinkProgress. "But we knew all along HB 2 was not about improving care, but making it inaccessible."

Dr. Richter has performed over 17,000 abortions over her career - and not once has required admitting privileges or sent a patient to the hospital for post-abortion care. Reproductive Services, however, will no longer be able to provide abortion services.

In North Texas, Doctors Lamar Robinson and Jasbir Ahluwalia received notices on March 31 informing them that their admitting privileges to the University General Hospital of Dallas had been revoked, with the hospital's CEO claiming the hospital was unaware they were providing abortion care and that the hospital believed such care would damage its reputation. A Dallas County judge granted Robinson and Ahluwalia a temporary restraining order against HB 2 until their legal challenge can receive a full hearing on April 30. Both doctors claim that they were open about their off-site abortion services when they applied for admitting privileges. Federal and state laws also forbid hospitals from discriminating against doctors who perform abortions.

Texas advocates expressed fears during legislative debate over HB 2 that anti-abortion protesters would pressure hospitals to deny abortion providers required admitting privileges, and as predicted, reproductive rights opponents in the state have indeed developed templates for action - including threatening protests and vigils on hospital grounds - with the intent to convince hospitals to revoke admitting privileges for abortion providers.

"Texas has put the constitutional rights of women in the hands of hospital administrators," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has filed two legal challenges to HB2. "As a consequence, the list of high-quality abortion providers forced to turn away patients continues to grow, while reproductive health care options for Texas women continue to shrink."

Before HB 2 was enacted in Texas, the state had 44 operating abortion clinics. Now, at least 20 have closed - and a 400-mile region in the state has been left with no clinics at all. Many women are being forced to cross state lines to access abortion care, and those who cannot find the resources to do so are resorting to illegal and unsafe methods to end their pregnancies.

Earlier this month, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed a petition asking the full US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reconsider its panel decision upholding the constitutionality of HB 2's admitting privileges requirement.


4/18/2014 - Dartmouth President Calls For Changes In Wake of Federal Sexual Assault Investigation

Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon gave a powerful speech Wednesday night calling for significant changes on campus in light of its high rates of sexual assault, high-risk drinking, and discriminatory social scene.

"Darmouth's promise is being hijacked by high-risk and harmful behaviors, behaviors that are hurting too many of our students, dividing us as a community and distracting from our important work of teaching and learning," Hanlon said. "From dangerous levels of drinking, to sexual assaults, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults posted on the Internet, and parties with racist and sexist undertones, our social scene is too often at odds with our mission and the practices of inclusion our students deserve."

The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigatingb Dartmouth for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases under Title IX, a law that bans discrimination on the basis of gender, and the Clery Act, which requires cases of sexual assault to be reported to the Department. As recently as February, while the OCR investigation was ongoing, a student whose name appeared in a "rape guide" on a student-run website was sexually assaulted.

Applications to Dartmouth fell 14 percent this year, the steepest drop in two decades, perhaps as a result of the spotlight on its campus sexual assault problem.

To address these issues, President Hanlon announced the creation of a Presidential Steering Committee made up of students, faculty, administration and alumni, that will spend the summer developing solutions. Hanlon strongly encouraged student input, saying this "cannot be viewed as a mandate from the top." Changes have also already begun on campus, including the work of The Dartmouth Bystander Initiative and the newly established Center for Community Action and Prevention to mobilizing the community against sexual assault, and the implementation of a disciplinary policy mandating expulsion for offenders.

Several other universities have come under federal investigation recently for mishandling sexual assault cases. In January, 39 members of Congress signed a letter calling for more transparency in the Department of Education's findings regarding these cases, and the White House launched a taskforce to prevent campus sexual assault.

TAKE ACTION: Organize to end rape on campus with Feminist Campus!


4/17/2014 - Supreme Court of India Recognizes Transgender Rights

India's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that official documents must allow transgender people to identify as a third gender and directed the federal and state governments to include transgender people, known as hijras, in welfare programs such as education, health care, and job programs.

"All documents will now have a third category marked 'transgender,'" said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender activist who petitioned the court. "This verdict has come as a great relief for all of us. Today I am proud to be an Indian."

The court also ordered the government to construct separate public bathrooms and special hospital wards to focus on transgender people's medical needs, implement public awareness campaigns to reduce the social stigma faced by the estimated 3 million transgender Indians, and give transgender people the right to adopt children, among other changes.

The "recognition of transgender people as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," said Supreme Court Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan. "Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights."

While this is a victory for transgender rights, the Supreme Court of India took a step backward last December by reinstating a colonial-era law banning gay sex.


4/17/2014 - Federal Court Permanently Blocks North Dakota's Extreme 6-Week Abortion Ban

A federal district court permanently blocked one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the nation yesterday, calling it "invalid and unconstitutional."

The North Dakota law, HB 1456, directly challenged Roe v. Wade by banning abortions before viability and as early as 6 weeks. The law - styled as a "fetal heartbeat" ban - would have created harsh penalties for physicians who knowingly violated the ban, making it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The law had been temporarily blocked since July.

"The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women," said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). CRR challenged the "heartbeat" ban on behalf of North Dakota's sole abortion clinic. "But women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights," continued Northup. "We hope today's decision, along with the long line of decisions striking down these attempts to choke off access to safe and legal abortion services in the US, sends a strong message to politicians across the country that our rights cannot be legislated away."

The ban was part of a series of anti-abortion laws signed into law last year in North Dakota, including, among other things, an admitting privileges requirement and a ban on medication abortion. CRR filed lawsuits challenging those provisions as well as the 6-week ban. The admitting privileges case settled last month, and the medication abortion ban is currently being considered in the North Dakota Supreme Court.

North Dakota will also vote in November on a personhood measure - called Measure 1 - that would amend the North Dakota state constitution to provide an "inalienable right to life" at "every stage of development." If passed by North Dakota voters, Measure 1 would ban all abortions in the state, without any exceptions, and could make illegal certain forms of birth control, stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization. In addition, Measure 1 threatens the provision of end-of-life care, may prevent individuals from making their own personal decisions concerning the use of life support, and interfere with organ donation.


4/16/2014 - 10-Year Old Girl Banned from Boys Basketball Team Will Now Play

Ten-year old Albuquerque, New Mexico fourth-grader Jaelyn Bates plays on the Frey Academy Basketball team, and her coach, Kevin Frey, thinks she's pretty good. "She always gives 100 percent," Frey said. "She's a competitor, and she makes others around her better. She's definitely earned every minute she has played."

But last week, the New Mexico Select Youth Sport Club told Coach Frey that Jaelyn could not play with her team in the upcoming Southwest Salsa Slam basketball tournament - because she's a girl.

Tournament organizers sent an email to Frey explaining: "Girls can not play on boys teams and boys can not play on girls teams. That has been our rule in our tournament for a number of years." NM Select follows the American Athletic Union tournament rules.

Coach Frey and the team, however, did not abandon Jaelyn - one of the team's star players. According to Frey, the boys on the team "didn't feel good [about Jaelyn not playing] and they don't want to play without her." Jaelyn, who was born with a heart defect that prevented her from walking until she was 2, has played basketball for three years and was named MVP at a local tournament last month.

After being told that NM Select would "not bend or change" the rules, Jaelyn's parents sued Friday, requesting a restraining order against NM Select, which could have impacted whether the tournament went forward.

Immediately after the suit was filed, on Monday, NM Select announced that it would allow Jaelyn to play. It wasn't a total victory. NM Select Executive Director Joseph Jaramillo explained that the organization was not changing its sex-segregation rules, but would provide an exception.

According to Jaelyn's father Barry Bates, Jaelyn is excited to play with her team, but Jaelyn - like many of us - "didn't understand why she couldn't play just because she was a girl."


4/16/2014 - Female Afghan Parliamentarian Injured in Shooting Attack

Maryam Koofi, a member of Afghanistan's Parliament, was wounded in a shooting yesterday. The assailant shot her twice in her leg as she was leaving her office last night.

Maryam's sister, Fawzia Koofi, claims it was an act of political intimidation by those who oppose the rights women have gained over the past few years, but the government claims the assailant was a police officer in a dispute with Maryam. "I don't know who was behind this attack--but I know that it was political," said Fawzia, who is also a member of Parliament and a women's rights activist. She survived a similar shooting attack in 2010.

The departure of most foreign troops in coming months has women's rights and human rights activists concerned about the possible resurgence of the Taliban and its potential impact on women. Over the last decade, with the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest under the Taliban, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats and two women ran for vice president in the recent elections, which were completed successfully with high turnout and low levels of violence.

Maryam Koofi is currently recovering in a Kabul hospital.


4/15/2014 - Virginia Bishops Advocate More Abortion Restrictions for Poor Women

Using the Medicaid expansion debate as a platform, the Virginia Catholic Conference issued a statement Friday calling for the repeal of a Virginia law that allows state funding of abortion care for Medicaid recipients in situations where the fetus exhibits a "gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity" or a "gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency."

Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond and Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington authored the statement which urges Virginia lawmakers to act to expand Medicaid to cover more of Virginia's poor. The statement notes how failure to expand Medicaid would hurt vulnerable populations: "Some are forced to choose between taking their child to the doctor and paying rent, or rush to emergency rooms when untreated chronic conditions become catastrophic. These situations are unacceptable, and the solution is clear." The bishops continue, "Everyone should have access to health insurance, not just those who can afford it or whose employers provide it. Virginia needs healthcare for all, not healthcare for some."

Except when it comes to abortion. The bishops carefully state that "healthcare is a right," but then ask Virginia legislators to repeal healthcare for poor women facing rare, tragic circumstances. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene told RH Reality Check that state funds covered only 14 abortions in 2013 due to gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment.

Democrats and Republicans in Virginia have been at an impasse over whether to expand Medicaid, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to an estimated 400,000 low-income individuals in the state. The federal government would pay the full cost of the expansion through 2016, after which it would reduce its contributions incrementally to a minimum of 90 percent of the total cost by 2020. Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) has pushed for Medicaid expansion, but so far, Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates have been steadfast in their opposition, leading to a stalemate over the state budget.


4/15/2014 - Activist Monica Jones Found Guilty of Walking While Trans

Trans woman, student, and sex work activist Monica Jones was found guilty Friday of "manifesting prostitution" by a Phoenix, Arizona judge after she accepted a ride with two undercover police officers in May 2013. Jones pled not guilty to the charge and challenged the law's constitutionality. She now faces time in a men's prison.

Phoenix Municipal Code 23-52 defines behavior that "manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution" illegal, although the broad language of the law allows authorities to decide which behaviors qualify as criminal action. If a police officer in Phoenix suspects someone of sex work, that person can be arrested for engaging in conversation with motorists, beckoning to cars, or stopping passersby.

Jones and other advocates, including members of the Arizona ACLU and Sex Workers Outreach Project, have asserted that Jones is guilty of simply "walking while trans," and that the Phoenix law allows for discriminatory profiling of women of color, trans* women, and women in poverty by the authorities. "I have been harassed by police four times since my initial arrest," she told Chase Strangio, an ACLU Staff Attorney. "The police have stopped me for no real reason when I have been walking to the grocery store, to the local bar, or visiting with a friend on the sidewalk."

Jones also believes she was targeted by authorities for speaking out against Project ROSE, an anti-prostitution collaboration between Arizona State University's School of Social Work, which Jones currently attends, the Phoenix Police Department, and various Catholic charities. The diversion program detains community members suspected of sex work and pressures them to participate in a Catholic "re-education" program, often threatening them with criminal charges if they refuse to participate.

Jones will appeal her case. "I am saddened by the injustice that took place at my trial," she said, "but we are not giving up the fight. It's time that we end the stigma and the criminalization of sex work, the profiling of trans women of color, and the racist police system that harms so many of us."


4/14/2014 - Kathleen Sebelius Resigns as Secretary of Health & Human Services

President Barack Obama last week announced the resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius.

Noting that she will "go down in history" for "serving as the Secretary of Health and Human Services when the United States of America finally declared that quality, affordable health care is not a privilege, but it is a right for every single citizen of these United States of America," President Obama praised Secretary Sebelius for guiding the implementation of the landmark Affordable Care Act (ACA).

At least 7.5 million Americans have now signed up for health coverage through health insurance marketplaces created by the ACA. That number surpasses the Administration's original target of 7 million enrollments. Over 7 million had already signed up by the March 31 deadline, but the latest tally includes those individuals who began the process of enrolling online before March 31 but who were allowed completed the process after the deadline. Another 3 million individuals also enrolled in Medicaid between October 2013 and the end of February. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia acted to expand Medicaid coverage through the ACA.

Beyond the ACA, President Obama remarked on Secretary Sebelius's work to improve child health, expand mental health services, reduce health disparities, and promote women's health, in addition to her efforts to combat healthcare fraud.

President Obama also announced his nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the next HHS Secretary. Burwell is currently the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). She will face hearings in both the Senate Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before receiving a confirmation vote by the full Senate.


4/14/2014 - Advocates Ask Court To Reconsider Texas Admitting Privileges Case

The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed a petition last week asking the full US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reexamine the constitutionality of the admitting privileges requirement contained in HB2, Texas' omnibus anti-abortion bill.

"We're asking the court to acknowledge what is crystal clear--this law hurts women," said Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director. "Because of this law, women are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and traveling hundreds of miles to get the care they need. This law does absolutely nothing to further patient safety."

At least 19 abortion clinics in Texas have closed since the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, making it increasingly difficult for Texans to access quality, affordable care when they want an abortion. Many cannot afford to take off work and travel to the nearest abortion clinic, which may be hours away. This difficulty may push women to use illegal products and services that are dangerous to their health.

HB2 passed the legislature last summer in a special legislative session called by Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (D) successfully led a filibuster of the bill for 12 hours. A federal district court originally struck down the admitting privileges requirement of the bill as unconstitutional. A Fifth Circuit panel, however, blocked that decision - after an emergency appeal by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott - allowing the law to go into effect. Providers and advocates filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court, but it refused to intervene. Later, the Fifth Circuit panel issued a final decision to uphold the requirement. Last week's filing now asks the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case.

In addition to the admitting privileges requirement, HB2 also bans abortion at 20 weeks, restricts medication abortion, and mandates that facilities where abortion is performed meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Several other state legislatures are working to restrict abortion access using similar laws.


4/11/2014 - Philippines Supreme Court Upholds Law Promoting Reproductive Health Access

The Philippines Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the country's Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, also known as the RH Law, is constitutional. The law directs government health centers to provide free access to nearly all contraceptives, including to the poor, and requires reproductive health education at government-run school for children and young adults age 10-19. The law also provides for post-abortion care.

The Court's ruling, however, was not a complete victory for women's health. The Court struck down a number of the RH Law's provisions, meaning that now health care providers may deny reproductive health services to patients in non-emergency situations based on the providers' personal or religious beliefs, spousal consent is required for married women seeking reproductive health care in non life-threatening situations, and minors will require parental consent.

President Benigno S. Aquino III signed the RH Law in December 2012, but Catholic groups immediately challenged it in court prompting the Supreme Court to halt its implementation while it decided the case.

"Today, conscience rights have prevailed, despite aggressive lobbying over the last decade and a half by the Catholic bishops and their powerful antichoice allies, said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "Although not perfect, the RH Law begins to address some of the country's largest health problems - including the high maternal mortality rate - that disproportionately affect low-income women."

Opponents have 15 days to appeal the ruling.


4/11/2014 - Tennessee Legislature Approves Measure Criminalizing Pregnant Women

The Tennessee state legislature passed SB 1391 Wednesday, a bill that allows women who suffer from drug-related pregnancy complications to be charged with assault and potentially imprisoned.

The bill would permit women to be charged with assault - theoretically up to the point of aggravated assault, which incurs a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison - if they have pregnancy complications after using illegal drugs or deliver children with "neonatal abstinence syndrome." The original bill allowed women to be charged with homicide if her fetus or baby died, but was later amended. The bill was also amended to give women the option of abandoning all charges if she voluntarily enters an approved treatment program, although advocates say the measure would discourage those women from seeking care in the first place.

Advocates worry that the language of the bill is broad enough to subject any woman with pregnancy complications to a criminal investigation. "The law itself, even though it permits women to be charged with misdemeanor assault, in no way limits the prosecution to misdemeanor assault, nor does it limit the prosecution to women who are illegally taking narcotics," Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told RH Reality Check. She asserted that any woman who loses a pregnancy or delivers a child with health problems could face an investigation, because it "is the only way to rule out an unlawful act."

Lawmakers in Tennessee attempted to pass similar legislation two years ago, but their efforts were defeated. Instead, the state eventually put the Safe Harbor Act into place, which gives pregnant women struggling with substance abuse incentives to pursue treatment and guarantees that they will not lose their newborns. Medical experts opposed SB 1391, primarily because punitive measures that criminalize pregnancy outcomes discourage women using drugs from seeking prenatal care. Anti-choice groups opposed the bill because they believe it will increase the number of abortions in the state, instilling fear in women who want pregnancies but also face drug addiction.

"Quite honestly," Gary Zelizer, director of government affairs for the Tennessee Medical Association, told The Tennessean, "any kind of punitive approach, from a health care perspective, drives women underground. It doesn't encourage them to get treatment."

Tennessee is the only state to successfully pass legislation allowing criminal prosecution of pregnant women based on the outcome of her pregnancy, although other states have attempted to codify the practice and have successfully used similar logic to win court cases. According to the Guttmacher Institute [PDF], 17 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse, and 3 consider it grounds for civil commitment. 15 states require health care professional to report suspected drug abuse by pregnant women, and 4 require subsequent drug testing. However, only 18 states have drug treatment program that target women, only 10 provide pregnant women with priority access to state-funded programs, and only 4 prohibit discrimination against pregnant women in those programs.

SB 1391 passed the House Wednesday afternoon 64-30, and passed the state Senate Monday 26-7. It is now headed to the desk of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.


4/10/2014 - Ninth Circuit Blocks Arizona Restrictions on Medication Abortion

In a victory for Arizona women, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has blocked the state's restrictions on medication abortion.

The Ninth Circuit issued a temporary injunction late Tuesday preventing Arizona from enforcing new regulations which would have prevented access to medication abortion after seven weeks and forced doctors to use an outdated protocol for administering the medication.

"The appeals court has recognized that Arizona women should not be denied access to critical reproductive care while yet another clearly unconstitutional attack on their health and rights makes it way through the courts," said David Brown, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging the law with Planned Parenthood Federation of America on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Arizona and the Tucson Women's Center.

The two clinics filed their legal challenge after the Arizona Department of Health Services issued regulations implementing the medication abortion restrictions that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law in 2012. A federal district court, however, refused to block enforcement of the regulations pending the final outcome of the case, meaning that the restrictions would have taken effect on April 1. The clinics filed an emergency appeal of that decision to the Ninth Circuit. The appeals court ruling will remain in effect until the final outcome of the case.


4/10/2014 - Women's Rights Groups Pressure Walmart to Improve Pregnant Worker Policies

Following a class action lawsuit filed by A Better Balance, the National Women's Law Center, and local counsel,Walmart has updated its worker accommodation policy to explicitly make women eligible for a reasonable accommodation if she experiences a temporary disability caused by pregnancy. The policy change puts Walmart in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but advocates say that the new policy may still allow discrimination against pregnant workers who do not have a disabling illness or injury related to pregnancy but who still need a reasonable accommodation in order to maintain a healthy pregnancy.

"While we are enthusiastic about this policy change, it does not go far enough," said Dina Bakst, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance. "Over and over again, Walmart has failed to accommodate pregnant workers. Many pregnant women without illness or complications are advised by their doctors to stay off tall ladders, drink water throughout the day, or take other steps to prevent health problems. Walmart must further update its policy to make clear that it will provide reasonable accommodations for all pregnant workers."

The complaint against Walmart filed earlier this year alleged that the superstore had a nationwide policy and practice of discriminating against pregnant workers by failing to make reasonable accommodations for those who needed them. At the center of the case was a Walmart sales associate who had been refused accommodations when she was seven months pregnant and forced to take unpaid leave. "Three months before my baby was born, Walmart forced me out the door," she said. "I was doing my job as a sales associate just as I had been for months, but suddenly I lost the paycheck that my family was counting on - simply because I was pregnant."

Discrimination against pregnant women has been a growing problem in the US. Between 1992 and 2011, pregnancy discrimination complaints in the United States increased by 71 percent. In the period 2010-2012 alone, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)received 11,757 such complaints. Despite being illegal to fire someone for being pregnant, women are often forced to take unpaid leave during their pregnancy or fired after requesting small accommodations recommended by a physician but not honored by their employer - including sitting on a stool or the ability to carry a water bottle.

Persistent discrimination against pregnant workers led to the introduction of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in May of 2013. Among other things, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would prohibit an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to use unpaid leave if she is able to work with a reasonable accommodation.


4/9/2014 - Protestors Fight For Not 1 More Deportation Across the US

On Saturday, thousands of immigration activists gathered in over 60 cities across the United States to protest the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The main organizer of the nationwide protests, the Not One More campaign, has expressed three concrete demands for the Obama administration: the end of deportation for undocumented workers who are not serious offenders or national security threats; the end of Secure Communities (a program which allows law enforcement to hold suspected undocumented immigrants before turning them over to the federal government); and an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivers program.

Not One More was joined in support by labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, which strongly condemned the deportation of immigrants without due process and urged the administration to act on behalf of undocumented workers in the United States.

"The time is now to stop deportations," said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. "Immigration reform has been stalled, and we need action now. Not in three months, not review. We need it now."


4/9/2014 - Senate Votes to Extend Unemployment Benefits

The Senate voted 50-38 yesterday to approve a bill that would restore jobless benefits for 2.4 million Americans who have been out of work for at least six months.

The bill would fund unemployment benefits through the end of May, and retroactively provides for individuals who were eligible for aid, but ceased to receive payment when the program's funding lapsed in December.

The bill's fate in the House is still somewhat uncertain. Speaker John Boehner has already expressed concern about the bill and has previously stated that the Republicans would be willing to extend unemployment benefits only if the bill included job creation provisions. At the same time, several Senate Republicans have already signed onto the bill, and several of Boehner's House colleagues are asking for a vote on it or a similar measure. The Republican sponsor of the bill, Dean Heller (R-NV), has also publicly stated his intention to meet with the Speaker in order to move the bill forward.

"At long last we're within sight of one chamber working across party lines to provide this critical relief; there's already been too much delay, with too many families suffering unneeded hardship," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project in a statement.


4/9/2014 - Senate Republicans Filibuster Paycheck Fairness Act

The Senate blocked efforts to advance the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) by a 54-43 vote today along strict party lines, with Republicans and moderates - including Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) - voting no. Senator Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, switched his vote to no so he could bring the bill to the floor in the future for an additional attempt to pass.

Immediately after the procedural vote failed, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chief sponsor of the PFA, went to the floor and vowed to continue the fight. Mikulski had delivered a passionate speech earlier imploring the Senate to "lift the veil of secrecy" on wages. She said it brings "tears to her eyes" knowing of the struggles that working women and their families experience when they try to make ends meet. Senator Patty Murray summed up the feelings of many feminists when she tweeted, "This isn't over. We aren't going to let GOP of the hook on #PaycheckFairness. Time for them to give women a #fairshot at #equal pay."

"The Feminist Majority and the women's movement will not rest until the gender wage gap is closed and women are no longer cheated on pay day," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority. "The Republicans are simply standing in the doorway blocking progress for employed women," said Smeal.

The PFA would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by prohibiting retaliation against employees who reveal and discuss wages with co-workers, requiring employers to provide the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pay data by sex, race and national origin of employees, facilitating the ability to file class actions in equal pay cases, and permitting prevailing plaintiffs - women or men- to receive not only compensatory or back pay but also punitive damages. Currently, plaintiffs in race or ethnicity wage discrimination cases can win punitive damages, but this is not so for plaintiffs taking gender equal pay cases to court.

The PFA filibuster came one day after President Obama signed an executive order lifting the veil of secrecy in wages for employees of federal contractors. Under this executive order, federal contractors are prohibited from retaliating against employees "who choose to discuss their compensation." President Obama also signed a Presidential Memorandum "instructing the Secretary of Labor to establish new regulations requiring federal contractors to submit to the Department of Labor summary data on compensation paid to their employees, including data by sex and race." Such data will be an effective tool in ending wage discrimination against women, African Americans and Latino/as.

"Women's rights and civil rights advocates have been fighting for these advances for over four decades. Finally, thanks to President Obama, we have a breakthrough. But we will not stop fighting until it is the law of the land for the vast majority of employers - not just federal contractors. Women deserve equal pay, and we will not stop until it is a reality and the loopholes that permit cheating women employees are closed," continued Smeal.


4/8/2014 - Senators and President Obama Mark Equal Pay Day With Actions To Close Wage Gap

Today marks Equal Pay Day - the day women must work until to earn as much as their male counterparts had by December 31 of last year. Senators and President Obama are also marking today with actions to close the wage gap.

President Obama proclaimed that today would be recognized as National Equal Pay Day - the day up to which a woman must work in the current year to earn what men made during the previous year - and he plans to sign two executive actions that will work to close the wage gap. An executive order would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation, and a memorandum would direct the Department of Labor to establish new regulations requiring federal contractors to report summary data on compensation paid to employees by race and sex to the Department.

"Women make up nearly half of our Nation's workforce and are primary breadwinners in 4 in 10 American households with children under age 18," Obama said in his proclamation. "Yet from boardrooms to classrooms to factory floors, their talent and hard work are not reflected on the payroll."

On average, women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and women of color make even less. Black women earn just 64 cents for every dollar earned by white men, and Latina earn only 54 cents. The pay gap costs women about $434,000 over the course of their careers - impacting the ability of women to provide for their families and care for their loved ones. The pay gap also cuts into women's Social Security, pensions, and retirement.

"The time has passed for us to recognize that what determines success should not be our gender, but rather our talent, our drive, and the strength of our contributions," Obama added.

In addition, the Senate is expected to bring the Paycheck Fairness Act to a vote tomorrow. The Act would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to require all employers to demonstrate that any pay differences between men and women doing the same work are based on legitimate business reasons, and not based on sex. It would also end pay secrecy by prohibiting all employers - not just federal contractors - from retaliating against employees who share salary information. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will lead several other Democratic Senate women in giving floor speeches calling for its passage.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Your Senators to Support the Paycheck Fairness Act! You can also join the Twitter storm today at 2PM EST in support of Equal Pay with @FemMajority!


4/7/2014 - Obama Poised To Sign Two Executive Actions On Equal Pay

President Obama will sign two executive actions tomorrow to promote equal pay for women.

The President will sign an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their compensation. Nearly half of all workers in the US are either expressly forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with colleagues, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Lack of transparency about what people are paid is a major challenge to enforcing equal pay laws.

"Pay discrimination is all too prevalent across the country and millions of women and their families are paying a steep price for it," said Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center. "Gag rules that require employees to keep their pay secret perpetuate this inequity. These new rules will make it harder for employers to hide pay discrimination."

The President will also sign a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of Labor to establish new regulations requiring federal contractors to report summary data on compensation paid to employees by race and sex to the Department. The data is expected to encourage voluntary compliance with equal pay laws while also allowing for more targeted enforcement.

These actions - to be taken on Equal Pay Day, the day up to which a woman must work in the current year to earn what men made during the previous year - come just as the US Senate is expected to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act(S. 84), which would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to require all employers to demonstrate that any pay differences between men and women doing the same work are based on legitimate business reasons, and not based on sex. In addition, the Paycheck Fairness Act would end pay secrecy by prohibiting all employers - not just federal contractors - from retaliating against employees who share salary information.

Women are the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of families with children under the age of 18. But, on average, women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and women of color make even less. Black women earn just 64 cents for every dollar earned by white men, and Latina earn only 54 cents. The pay gap costs women about $434,000 over the course of their careers - impacting the ability of women to provide for their families and care for their loved ones. The pay gap also cuts into women's Social Security, pensions, and retirement.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Your Senators to Support the Paycheck Fairness Act!


4/7/2014 - Alabama Passes Bill Further Restricting Abortion Access for Minors

Minors will soon find it harder to obtain an abortion in Alabama, after the state legislature passed a bill last week creating more rules around parental consent.

A minor's parent is already required to sign a consent form, but HB 494 will now require parents to do so in front of the physician performing the procedure. The parent giving consent must also prove their parentage by presenting a certified copy of a child's birth certificate. Many people do not have a certified birth certificate easily available, and they can be difficult to obtain.

In addition, a young woman under 19 years of age seeking a judicial bypass of the consent law will have to provide the court with a "substantive" reason for why she does not wish to tell her parents about her decision, demonstrate her maturity and "understanding of life," and prove that she has received counseling about alternatives to abortion. The court must inform the Attorney General that a young woman has applied for a judicial bypass and may appoint a guardian ad litem for the fetus.

"We are disappointed with passage of the bill," said Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama. "It creates a lot of unnecessary red tape and, if a young woman seeks a judicial bypass, she will still find herself being put on trial as if she is a criminal."

Alabama's legislature also recently passed a bill extending the waiting period for having an abortion from 24 to 48 hours on Wednesday. Governor Robert Bentley is expected to sign both bills.

Two other restrictive bills that had passed Alabama's House of Representatives are not being taken up by the Senate. They sought to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected and require women carrying fetuses with lethal disorders to learn about perinatal hospice services - services that do not exist in the state of Alabama.


4/7/2014 - Millions of Afghans Vote in Historic Elections

High turnout, low levels of violence, and strong participation by women, all combined Saturday to make the closely watched Afghan presidential and provincial council elections a success.

Over 7 million Afghan men and women voted in these historic elections - representing a staggering 60% voter participation rate, close to the 62% participation rate in the US presidential election in 2008 and more than the 58% participation rate in the US in 2012. The Afghan Independent Commission (IEC) estimates that at least one-third of Afghan voters on Saturday were women.

Voters braved rain, snow, and long lines - as well as potential and real incidents of violence - in order to cast their ballots. Although the level of violence during this election was much lower than in 2009, news reports indicated several attacks on polling stations, police, and voters, and some voting centers had to close because of security concerns. In addition, the days leading up to the election saw other attacks, including the shooting of Associated Press journalists Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Niedringhaus was killed in the attack.

Despite the threat, however, the Taliban could not disrupt the election. In fact, turnout was so high - only about 4.5 million voted in the last election - that the IEC had to extend hours at voting centers to accommodate the crowds. "Of course the massive turnout of women voters is a big slap to all those who want to block us to contribute," said Samira Huria, a member of the Afghan Women's Network and one of the many women who voted in the election.

"The women of Afghanistan risked their lives to vote. They are real heroes," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. "The road, however, is still long, and we must continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghan women in their struggle for full equality and democracy."

Women have played a central role in the elections. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats, the largest number of women ever to run, and two women are running for vice president - one on a major candidate's ticket. In addition, each of the presidential candidates have had to address women's rights in their campaigns, a testament to the importance of women to the election and to the redevelopment of Afghanistan.

Election results are not expected until late-April. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the country will conduct a run-off election in May.