Trump Administration Asks for Census Delay

The Trump administration has moved to delay deadlines for the 2020 United States Census due to concerns over COVID-19.

The changes, requested by Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, would delay the deadline for delivering state population counts for apportionment from December 2020 to April 2021 and for giving states data for redistricting from the end of March 2021 to the end of July 2021. Because the deadlines are established by federal law, changes would have to be made with approval from Congress. Upon Congressional approval, some states would need to pass their own legislation to account for these delays.

According to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY 12), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, no representatives from the Census Bureau were on a call Monday morning that was organized by the White House. “Preventing the Census director from briefing the committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves,” she said.

Officials from the Census Bureau postponed all field operations for the massive national head count until June 1, with the final deadline for data collection pushed back to October 31, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Former Census Bureau director John Thompson noted that the timing of the census makes traditional in-person collections of questionnaires even more difficult: “If they start the census again too early, it’s going to be a disaster because you are going to get people sick, you’re not going to get people to respond.”

According to Dillingham and Ross’ statement, over 48% of American households have already responded to the Census. The Census is mandated by the Constitution and provides key data about population demographics and helps determine federal funding for schools, roads and fire departments. It also determines the number of seats each state has in the House and the borders of each congressional district.

“We need the Administration to cooperate with our requests [for more information] so we can make informed decisions on behalf of the American people,” said Rep. Maloney.

Sources: ABC 04/13/20; Politico 04/13/20; The Hill 04/13/20

Abortion Services Allowed to Continue in Oklahoma After Appeals Court Ruling

The decision by a lower court to overturn the Oklahoma governor’s ban on abortion has been upheld by a federal appeals court. Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made a unanimous ruling to allow abortions to continue in Oklahoma, overturning Gov. Kevin Stitt’s (R) ban on abortion as part of his executive order from March 27 halting all non-essential medical procedures during the COVID-19 outbreak. District Judge Charles Goodwin granted a temporary restraining order against the state’s ban on abortion earlier this month.

The president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, stated, “It’s time for Oklahoma and other states to stop exploiting the pandemic to shutdown clinics. Oklahoma’s true motive has never been more apparent. This has nothing to do with the current pandemic–it’s purely politics.”

Governor Stitt’s attempt to undermine women’s healthcare is being replicated across the country. Multiple governors have tried to include abortion as a non-essential procedure under executive orders that are aimed at freeing up medical equipment and resources. Abortion bans are being challenged in court by organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

In Alabama, a district judge ruled Sunday that abortions must be allowed to continue in the state, and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio declined to hear an appeal from the Ohio Attorney General attempting to reverse a judge’s restraining order allowing abortions to proceed. Abortion advocates in Texas are taking their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal appeals court allowed the state to temporarily ban abortion.

Sources: New York Times, 4/13/20; The Hill, 4/13/20.

Jill Karofsky Defeats Daniel Kelly for Wisconsin Supreme Court Seat

Democrat Jill Karofsky has defeated the incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly for his seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court according to results released Monday, reducing the conservative majority in the court and solidifying another seat for a woman on the bench.

According to Partick Marley for USA Today, Karofsky has “served as the state’s first violence against women resource prosecutor and later oversaw crime victim services for the state Department of Justice. In that role, she helped change the law to make it easier for victims to get restitution and helped change court rules to better protect victims’ privacy, such as by having court documents refer to them by their initials instead of their names.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court vote took place last week despite Governor Tony Evers’ efforts to postpone the vote until at least June in light of COVID-19 closures and distancing measures. According to BBC, “voters braved long queues at a limited number of polling stations where some staff wore hazmat suits.”

Wisconsin was the first state in over a month to hold an in-person primary since the U.S. began to implement stay-at-home orders. Voting turnout was extremely high despite the pandemic. Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, noted that, “despite the result, the fact that this in-person election took place was a searing loss for Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin has reported over 3,400 positive coronavirus cases and 154 deaths.

“Look, we shouldn’t have had the election on Tuesday,” Karofsky commented following the vote. “It was an untenable decision (on whether to vote), but the people of the state of Wisconsin rose up.

Justice Kelly’s defeat came as a shock due to his presidential support and the fact that he is only the second incumbent state Supreme Court justice to be voted out of a seat since 1967. However, Kelly did congratulate Karofsky and said that he still plans on working hard for the remainder of his term.

Sources: BBC 4/14; USA Today 4/13

Judge Affirms Abortion Access in Alabama During Coronavirus Pandemic

A federal judge has ruled that Alabama cannot ban abortions during the coronavirus pandemic. District Judge Myron Thompson decided that the state must allow abortion providers to exercise “reasonable medical judgment” in deciding whether a procedure can wait until after the COVID-19 crisis.

Alabama, like many other states, ordered a halt on non-essential medical procedures until April 30 to conserve medical supplies and hospital beds and reduce the strain on healthcare personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the state refused to say whether abortion care could proceed under that order, abortion clinics sought an injunction to prevent an abortion ban.

On Sunday, Thompson granted that injunction, writing, “The defendants’ efforts to combat COVID-19 do not outweigh the lasting harm imposed by the denial of an individual’s right to terminate her pregnancy, by an undue burden or increase in risk on patients imposed by a delayed procedure, or by the cloud of unwarranted prosecution against providers.”

Reproductive rights advocates and clinics are fighting similar legal battles in several states, including Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Just last week, a federal appeals court upheld Texas’ abortion ban, while a district judge blocked Oklahoma’s ban.

Clinics argue that banning abortion does not provide health benefits. Instead, it denies patients access to vital reproductive care and facilitates the spread of COVID-19 by forcing patients to travel to other states for abortions. “Preventing someone from getting an abortion doesn’t do anything to stop the COVID-19 virus, it just takes the decision whether to have a child out of their hands,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

Sources: CBS News 4/12/20; The Guardian 4/13/20; Montgomery Advertiser 4/13/2

Virginia Governor Signs Abortion Protections and Gun Reform Into Law

On Friday, Governor Ralph Northam signed bills into law that roll back state abortion restrictions, specifically the state’s TRAP (Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers) laws. The removal of abortion restrictions comes at a time when reproductive rights are being restricted under the current administration and during the COVID-19 crisis.

Northam’s spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky stated that the Reproductive Health Protection Act, sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring in the state House and Sen. Jennifer McClellan in the state Senate, will go into effect on July 1. Overall, the bills remove restrictions that have long been in place to limit easy access to abortion. The legislation removes restrictions that require healthcare seekers to receive an ultrasound at least 24 hours prior to receiving an abortion and to get counseling on alternative options. The measures remove the requirement that only physicians can provide abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy. The bills also eliminate the requirement that facilities that provide more than five abortions per year be designated as hospitals.

State Senator Jennifer McClellan stated, “Today, we have finally put an end to these medically unnecessary barriers to women’s reproductive health care. Politicians should not interfere in women’s personal medical decisions, period.” The passing of bills expands abortion provider pools significantly. Northam made his stance clear, stating, “No more will legislators in Richmond — most of whom are men — be telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies… [the bills] will make women and families safer, and I’m proud to sign it into law.”

On Friday, the governor also signed five gun control measures into law. Overall these measures include greater background checks and a new “red flag” law which permits stricter enforcement for those classified a danger to themselves or other.

Sources: CNN 4/10/20; The Hill 4/11/20

Federal Appeals Court Reinstates Texas Coronavirus Abortion Ban

A federal appeals court upheld Texas’s ban on abortion services during the coronavirus crisis less than 24 hours after a district judge struck down parts of the ban. This latest decision blocks medication abortions but allows abortions for those who would be past Texas’s legal gestational limit at the end of the ban.

In late March, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an executive order halting all “non-essential” medical procedures until at least April 22 to conserve supplies for COVID-19-related care and reduce strain on the healthcare system. State Attorney General Ken Paxton then declared that all non-emergency abortions are elective procedures and ordered providers to stop performing them. Doctors who violate the order could receive jail time or fines of up to $1000.

The attorney general’s order quickly became the center of a legal battle as Texas abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, went to court to fight the ban. Providers and reproductive rights advocates argue that banning abortion, beyond being a violation of patients’ constitutional rights, is dangerous because it forces people to travel out of state during a pandemic to get the care they need.

On March 31, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a federal district court’s initial injunction that allowed Texas clinics to continue providing abortion care, sending the case back to the district court. Last Thursday, District Judge Lee Yaekel ordered that Texas allow medication abortions and and surgical abortions for patients who would pass the state’s gestational limit during the ban. “A ban within a limited period becomes a total ban when that period expires. As a minimum, this is an undue burden on a woman’s right to a previability abortion,” wrote Yaekel.

This small victory for Texas abortion providers was short-lived. On Friday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Texas could entirely halt medication abortions. Following the appeals court decision, Planned Parenthood submitted an emergency request for the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Sources: CBS 4/10/20; NPR 4/10/20; Quartz 4/13/20

Insurance Companies Say Action Must Be Taken to Avoid Collapse of Insurance Industry

Representatives of the insurance industry took action and wrote a letter to some congressional lawmakers in California, revealing that insurance companies do not have the foundations necessary to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Insurance coverage works by spreading risk, but that model simply cannot account for a situation in which losses are catastrophic and nearly universal,” the April 2 letter noted. “Standard business interruption policies do not, and were not designed to, provide coverage against communicable diseases such as COVID-19, and as such, were not actuarially priced to do so.”

The letter added that the groups are ready to work with Congress to find solutions beyond the CARES Act, which provides for loan programs that will give down payments for Main Street businesses. The CARES Act, or the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, is a $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress. The organizations said that further liquidity will be necessary to avoid an “unprecedented, systemic economic crisis.”

According to insurance experts and regulators, many companies are finding it difficult to get an insurance payout due to policy changes after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. Many insurers added exclusions to standard commercial policies for any losses due to viruses or bacteria. This language could allow insurance companies to not have to pay billions of dollars to companies because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robert Gordon, a senior vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said, “Insurers realized they would not be able to cover such a broad-scale event.” This is an issue that is widely expected to be settled in the courts.

Sources: The Hill, 4/8/20; Washington Post, 4/2/20.

Activist Phyllis Lyon Passes Away at Age 95

LGBTQ+ rights pioneer, Phyllis Lyon, died at age 95 yesterday of natural causes.

Lyon co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the United States’ first lesbian organization in 1955. She and her wife, Del Martin, were the first couple to married in San Francisco’s “Winter of Love” in 2004, a time when the mayor of San Francisco issued thousands of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite it being illegal.

Lyon and Martin also created a publication called The Ladder, a monthly publication that ran from 1956 to 1972, which had content on politics, fiction, poetry, and connecting lesbians across the country. Lyon and Martin were also the first lesbian couple to join the National Organization for Women (NOW), and worked to have the organization expand to fight for lesbian rights.

California State Senator Wiener memorialized her saying, “We lost a giant today…Phyllis Lyon fought for LGBTQ equality when it was neither safe nor popular to do so. Phyllis and her wife Del Martin played a crucial role winning the rights and dignity our community now enjoys. We owe Phyllis immense gratitude for her work. Rest in power.”

Sources: TowleRoad 4/9/20; San Francisco Bay Times 2019; SFist 4/9/20

Medical Professionals Ask For Advance Medicare Payments During Pandemic

For many healthcare professionals who own medical practices during the coronavirus outbreak, concerns have grown over how to pay rent.

Private practices, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities have faced a massive influx of patients, though revenue has dropped because appointments are now generally over the phone or computer. This loss of revenue makes it difficult to pay mortgages, staff salaries, malpractice insurance, utilities, electronic health records costs, and other expenses that medical professionals are responsible for paying.

To be able to keep facilities running, thousands of healthcare practitioners have relied on Medicare advances, to help cushion the loss of income. In addition to this, small practices can apply for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection loans to help cover any additional costs.

At the end of March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that it would for the first time ever implement a nationwide accelerated Medicare payment program, specifically to ease the financial strain caused by coronavirus on healthcare providers. This, in turn, has encouraged private health insurers to offer advanced payments and other forms of financial support.

Other facilities are postponing non-essential and elective surgeries to assist the overwhelmed hospitals by way of extra healthcare workers and Personal Protective Equipment.

Sources: Kaiser Health News 04/10/2020; Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 03/2020

Abortion Providers in Texas Turn to District Courts for Abortion Ban Exemptions

Texas abortion providers asked a district judge for limited relief from an executive order restricting abortion during the pandemic, rather than taking the case to the Supreme Court.

The move by the providers to seek help from a district judge was made in response to an order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that allowed Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) directive order stopping all “nonessential” medical treatments. The governor cited the preservation of medical supplies and resources as the reason for his order. Texas is among a number of states attempting to curtail abortion, but judges in Alabama, Ohio, and Oklahoma ruled that these restrictions could not be applied to women seeking abortions.

The panel in the 5th Circuit in Texas, however, thought differently. Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote that precedent set by the Supreme Court “instructs that all constitutional rights may be reasonably restricted to combat a public health emergency.”

Clinic attorneys, abortion providers, and advocates turned to the district court to allow for some exemptions. These would include women seeking abortions induced by medication and women who are under a deadline in receiving an abortion due to Texas’ limit of 22 weeks. According to abortion providers, medication abortion in particular involves taking pills and almost never results in hospitalization. In a brief to the district judge, abortion providers noted, “Medication abortion itself requires no PPE, while the patient’s only alternative to medication abortion — continuing the pregnancy — does require PPE.” Fewer than 100 of about 52,000 abortions in 2017 were performed at hospitals, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

Sahra Harvin, a board co-chair at Clinic Access Support Network, discussed the difficulties clinics and patients are facing due to the ban. “It puts callers in a difficult situation where they’re having to choose between their reproductive health needs to be met immediately and their health or safety from coronavirus,” she said. “And I think it’s been really stressful and scary for our callers having to choose between endangering their health in one way and endangering their health in another way.”

Sources: Washington Post, 4/8/20; TexasMonthly, 4/9/20.

Muslim Woman Files Lawsuit After Being Forced to Remove Her Hijab Upon Arrest

Ahmed Mohamed, a litigation director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York (CAIR NY) is filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who have been forced to remove their religious head coverings upon arrest. At the center of the lawsuit is Ihsan Malkawi, a Muslim woman alleging that police in New York forced her to remove her hijab when she was arrested in August 2019.

The incident began when the daughter of Malkawi and her husband tried to run away from home. After bringing her back, the couple fought with their daughter who wanted to return to Michigan, where they had previously lived. The following day, their daughter called 911, claiming her parents had assaulted her with a belt and a curtain rod.

New York Child Protective Services has since determined the accusations to be false. That day, however, Yonkers police officers arrived at the couple’s home and brought them to the nearest precinct for questioning. Malkawi was arrested, handcuffed, and taken to a booking cell, where a police officer demanded she remove her hijab for a booking photo and time in the cell.

Malkawi protested, explaining that wearing her hijab was an important part of her religion. Still, the officer’s supervisor insisted that Malkawi take off her hijab in order to comply with the law. Reluctantly, Malkawi removed her hijab. She spent approximately 36 hours without her hijab, in addition to being forced to wear a short-sleeved shirt in city jail, until her husband was able to bail her out.

The Yonkers Police Department maintains at least two photos of Malkawi without her hijab. Malkawi has expressed that the existence of these photos and the residual trauma regarding the whole experience has contributed to her depression, anxiety, uncontrollable flashbacks, and nightmares almost a year later.

CAIR NY argues that the common practice of New York officers removing religious headwear upon arrest violates the first amendment. Furthermore, CAIR NY argues the practice is simply unnecessary–religious headwear like hijabs, Sikh turbans, and Jewish yarmulkes do not obscure the face, and are allowed to be worn in photos for other legal documents, like passports and driver’s licenses throughout the United States.

CAIR NY hopes the decision on the class action lawsuit in New York rules the practice unconstitutional, following precedents set by courts in Michigan, Maine, and California.

Sources: NBC News, 4/8/20; Huff Post, 4/8/20

Northern Irelanders Must Travel to England for Abortion Care During Pandemic

Despite the recent legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland, it remains inaccessible there, forcing patients to take an 8-hour ferry ride to England to receive abortion care. Last year, the British parliament overturned Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws to bring it into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but the regional government continues to resist making abortion accessible.

The new abortion laws went into effect on March 31, but Northern Ireland’s regional health ministry has not yet begun providing abortion care. Debate over the rollout of abortion services has led to a stalemate between pro-choice Sinn Fein, which leads the regional government, and the anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party. Many suspect this is an effort to indefinitely delay the provision of abortion care supported by the self-described “pro-life” First Minister Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann.

The closest clinics to Northern Ireland providing publicly funded abortion care are in Manchester and Liverpool in England. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, hotel rooms and direct flights to those cities are no longer available, so patients’ only option is to take a ferry there and then immediately return home.

“Women are effectively being asked to make an eight-hour journey on a ferry while in the middle of a miscarriage in the middle of a pandemic, without any support,” said Emma Campbell, co-chair of Alliance for Choice, a Northern Ireland reproductive rights organization.

In the rest of the United Kingdom, patients can now receive pills for medication abortions at home after a remote consultation with a doctor, an effort to support abortion access during the coronavirus lockdown. The Democratic Unionist Party voted against implementing that measure in Northern Ireland.

“We are in a worse position than we have ever been in,” said Campbell. “Access is worse than it has been for over 50 years.”

Alliance for Choice has had to revert to its pre-decriminalization strategy for providing patients with abortion care: using a doctor in the Netherlands for prescriptions for medication abortion pills and then purchasing the pills online. However, COVID-19 is restricting the organization’s access to pills while increasing the number of people who have reached out to them for help.

Sources: The New York Times 4/9/20; Reuters 4/7/20

Majority of COVID-19 Related Job Loss Falls on Women and Minorities

The U.S. Labor Department reports that 701,000 workers were laid off in March due to COVID-19, with almost 60 percent of those being women. Earlier this year, women had overtaken men to make up the majority of the national workforce, but layoffs have put them back in the minority.

Stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures have strained the service industry, where women are the majority of the workforce. Workers in this sector have faced high rates of furloughs and layoffs as businesses struggle to stay afloat with severely reduced income. “What we see now is a service sector recession that is disproportionately impacting women,” said C. Nicole Mason, the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Businesses like restaurants, bars, hotels, retail stores, and salons have been hit hard, along with the tourism industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report shows that child day care services lost 19,000 jobs in March, and women represent 94 percent of workers in that sector. This is a stark contrast to the 2008 recession, which struck male-dominated industries first.

Minorities are likely also experiencing disproportionate unemployment rates. Latinx and Black workers represent a large portion of hotel, foodservice, and custodial employees, all of which have seen significant layoffs.

The BLS’s March data does not include the nearly 10 million people who filed for first-time unemployment benefits in the end of March and beginning of April. Those numbers indicate a likely unemployment rate of about 18 percent for adults, with higher rates estimated for minorities and teens.

Sources: Yahoo 4/7/20; NPR 4/8/20; CNN 4/4/20

Australian Cardinal Accused of Sexual Abuse Acquitted

Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for sexually assaulting two young boys in the 1990s has been overturned by the Australian High Court.

Because the court found reasonable doubt of Pell’s crimes, the former Vatican chief financial officer and adviser to Pope Francis will be released with no possibility of a retrial. He was convicted in December of 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne and was serving a six-year sentence in prison.

One of the former choirboys died of a heroin overdose in 2014 and never reported the abuse, but the other individual went to the police in 2015 as an adult and pointed to the cardinal as an abuser of himself and the other boy in 1996. A trial in early 2018 featured a deadlocked jury, but the conviction was made public in February of 2019. The Victorian Court of Appeal upheld the conviction later that year in August.

Emphatically maintaining his innocence, 78-year-old Pell did not testify at either trial or the ensuing appeals. He called the accusations “vile and disgusting.”

Pell made a statement after his acquittal that he does not hold any “ill will” towards the accuser. “I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” he said.

The Vatican did not make any immediate statement regarding the acquittal, but Pope Francis offered his morning Mass today for those who suffer from unjust sentences, though not mentioning Pell by name. Before the start of the Mass, the Pope said, “I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence (against them).”

Pell is the highest-ranking leader in the Roman Catholic Church that has been found guilty in a time where the church has a pedophilia crisis on its hands. Catholics across the world were shocked at the acquittal, and many cite the length of the case and the secrecy of his second trial as reasons for confusion. No one has had access to the testimony of the accuser.

A trial was cancelled in February 2019 due to legal setbacks in which there were allegations that Cardinal Pell had touched boys in a swimming pool in his hometown of Ballarat. Additionally, two other men came forward last week and accused Pell of sexually abusing them in Ballarat during his time there as a priest in the diocese.

Rosemary O’Grady is a retired lawyer who took notes in service of several victims’ groups during the trials. She points to Pell’s acquittal as evidence of the need for survivors of abuse to have their own representation and said it was a “bad day for democracy.”

Sources: NPR, 4/6/20; New York Times, 4/6/20.

ACLU Sues for Release of ICE Detainees Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued for the release of high-risk detainees at two detention centers in California as a rising number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees nationally are testing positive for COVID-19. Lawyers are arguing on the ground of humanitarian rights noting the over-populated facilities and poor health conditions of the detention centers.

ACLU sued for the release of high-risk detainees at the Otay Mesa and Imperial Regional detention facilities on the same day that the first COVID-19 case was confirmed. ACLU has taken similar action against ICE facilities in multiple states across the country regarding concerns about the current health epidemic.

In the lawsuit, lawyers argue that certain detainees at the two detention centers have pre-existing conditions that would heighten the likelihood of severe symptoms. On humanitarian grounds, the lawsuit argues these detainees should be released to protect them from a high likelihood of exposure to the virus. This lawsuit, which was filed Friday, states it is “effectively impossible” for those in ICE facilities to protect themselves from the virus; detainees cannot abide by any safety measures proscribed by health officials. Detainees cannot practice social distancing and do not even have sanitary conditions to be able to maintain proper hygiene and health guides.

A handful of elected officials have called for increased releases, citing the efforts to decongest prisons as a precedent to this action. ICE has the resources to be able to enforce court dates without physically detaining mass numbers of people in the midst of a virus outbreak that prohibits gatherings of ten people or more.

Sources: The San Diego Union-Tribune 4/6/20; Los Angeles Times 4/7/20

Lawyers Working Nonstop During COVID-19 Pandemic to Protect LGBTQ+ Rights

Despite courts being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been writing lawsuits challenging new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country. In Idaho, there has been two pieces of legislation passed into law that ban transgender women and girls from playing on high school and college teams and prevents trans people from changing the sex on their birth certificates.

Attorneys at the ACLU argue that a judge needs to be hearing these cases, as these bills cause great harm to trans people and cannot wait until the courts reopen. HB500, the law barring female trans athletes from participating in school sports, is seen as one of the most pressing challenges to LGBTQ+ rights at this moment. Senior staff attorney, Gabriel Arkles, emphasized the urgency in fighting for trans athletes, stating that “We will absolutely be arguing that it’s essential because if we don’t get a decision in time for fall sports, that’s going to have a really direct and irreparable impact on trans athletes.”

Lambda Legal is working to challenge the other Idaho Law, HB509, which prevents trans people from updating their birth certificates. Lambda Legal won a federal lawsuit in 2018 on the behalf of two trans women that were denied the ability to change their birth certificates. Due to this, Idaho’s new law is in direct violation of this legal precedent.

During the current pandemic, outside of these legal challenges attorneys are also filing numerous petitions to free LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive people from prisons and ICE facilities.

Sources: Logo News 4/6/20; Feminist News 3/17/20; Idaho House of Representatives 2/13/20; Idaho House of Representatives 2/13/20;

Judge Blocks Oklahoma Abortion Restrictions During COVID-19 Outbreak

Oklahoma US District Judge Charles Goodwin has just blocked a state executive order that limits abortion access during the coronavirus pandemic. Judge Goodwin believes that Oklahoma’s ban would cause “irreparable harm” to individuals unable to receive abortion care.

In response to Oklahoma’s state executive order, Goodwin also remarked, “that while the current public health emergency allows the State of Oklahoma to impose some of the cited measures delaying abortion procedures, it has acted in an ‘unreasonable,’ ‘arbitrary,’ and ‘oppressive’ way – and imposed an ‘undue burden’ on abortion access – in imposing requirements that effectively deny a right of access to abortion.”

In addition to Oklahoma’s order, several other states have deemed elective abortion procedures as non-essential medical procedures during the COVID-19 outbreak in order to conserve medical space and supplies. However, CNN Political Reporter Caroline Kelly notes that “abortion rights supporters have disparaged the move as politically motivated.”

While the ruling does come offer up some sense of relief for patients seeking abortion care, Alexis McGill, acting president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, said that, “they should have never had to wait for a judge to rule before accessing the time-sensitive care they needed,” and accused Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt of “wasting valuable time and resources using the COVID-19 pandemic to score political points.”

Sources: The Hill 4/6/20 ; CNN 4/6/20

Coronavirus Hampers Access to Menstrual Products for Low-Income People and Shelters

Low-income individuals and social service organizations are struggling to find menstrual products amid the coronavirus outbreak. Along with other essentials like toilet paper, menstrual products have become difficult to find in stores or online due to consumers stocking up at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panic shopping in March left many grocery stores, pharmacies, and major retailers like Amazon and Walmart out of stock of the most popular brands of pads and tampons, with restocking set for early April. Those who could afford to stockpiled menstrual products, leaving those who could not buy ahead in bulk struggling to find needed supplies. Price gouging has also become a problem, potentially forcing people to decide between buying food or menstrual products.

Homeless and domestic violence shelters are finding their usual bulk orders delayed, putting those who rely on those services for menstrual products in a precarious position. When shelters cannot provide these essentials, people often turn to risky alternatives like fabric scraps from T-shirts or mattresses.

The federal coronavirus spending package attempts to provide some relief by allowing those with health savings accounts, Archer medical savings accounts, health care flexible spending accounts or health reimbursement arrangements to use that money to buy menstrual products. However, this measure does not help the most needy or address supply shortages.

Nonprofits like I Support the Girls (ISTG), an organization that provides donated menstrual products and bras to prisons, shelters, and social service organizations, have stepped in to meet the increased demand for menstrual products. ISTG has received hundreds of requests from individuals and organizations for help and donated 900,000 products to cities around the country this March, a massive increase from the 200,000 products it donated in March 2019.

Over 2,000 of those products went to Trenton, New Jersey for distribution to homeless individuals. “Normally a municipality or small city thinks of food drives or clothing drives, but the menstrual hygiene products are too often neglected,” said Reed Gusciora, the mayor of Trenton. “These products are a right, not a privilege.”

Sources: The New York Times 4/5/20; Business Insider 3/20/20; CNN 3/26/20

Study Reports Texas Women Will Have to Travel 20 Times Farther to Obtain Abortion Care

Due to Texas’ new abortion ban, women in the state must now travel 20 times farther to obtain an abortion as reported in an analysis of anti-abortion measures implemented in some states due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, the average distance a woman will have to travel one-way to reach the nearest abortion provider will increase from 12 miles to 243 miles. “The greater the increase in travel distance, the greater the hardship it causes, and the more likely it becomes that some individuals will not be able to get abortion care at all,” the report stated. Even though abortion access is already limited in Texas, this abortion ban has made it even more difficult.

The statewide ban in Texas is seen by proponents of abortion rights and reproductive rights as political posturing, using the pandemic as an excuse to block access to the procedure. Texas officials, however, say that the move to ban abortion arose out of the need to conserve medical supplies for those working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Texas is one of five other states to introduce abortion restrictions as the virus spreads across the United States. Some of these restrictions are being challenged in the courts due to the unconstitutional burden placed on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Last Tuesday a federal appeals court in Texas ruled that the state is able to temporarily ban abortion because it is part of the state’s response to the pandemic. In a 2-1 decision in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the ruling stayed a lower court ruling that blocked the abortion ban.

“Texans know abortion is a time-sensitive procedure that cannot be delayed without profound consequences and Texans will remember that when they needed help during a pandemic, their state leaders were too busy politicizing and banning abortion care,”  said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Other states included in the Guttmacher study include Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, and Oklahoma. In all these states, patients will have to face increased travel times due to the temporary abortion bans. Due to travel costs and times, the procedure will now be out of reach for some women, with the most affected by states’ bans being low-income women and single mothers.

Sources: The Hill, 4/3/20; CBS News, 4/2/20.

Coronavirus Forces Activists to Innovate New Ways of Organizing

From Hong Kong to Chile, coronavirus has shut down public demonstrations for social and political change. With the threat of high fines, jail time, police brutality, and now illness looming, activists are adapting and innovating to continue building movements in an unprecedented era of social distancing.

Activist networks, grown over months of organizing to plug demonstrations, are now being used to distribute medical supplies and share information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Hong Kong, activists have used their networks to import and distribute more than 100,000 medical masks, reports the Washington Post. Protestors have taken to social media and messaging apps to share tips and reminders on avoiding coronavirus.

Labor unions representing essential workers are leveraging their newfound power under coronavirus to help the cause. In February, a medical workers’ strike prompted Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to shut a majority of Hong Kong’s borders with the mainland down, a move she was previously unwilling to take. Nearly 50 new unions have sprung up since the end of last year, and many of these unions explicitly support the Hong Kong protest movement– including the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), which led the February strike to chants of “Close the border, save Hong Kong.”

In Santiago, Chile, ground zero for weekly demonstrations, the Plaza Italia, now stands quiet. Elsewhere, activists have drowned out music and conversation with cacerolazos — balcony pot-and-pan-banging protests traditional in Latin America. Other groups have shared manuals for protesting at home across social media platforms, instructing Chileans to deck their balconies with protest signs, and others are encouraging cyberactivism as an alternative.

“Being safe can’t simply mean abandoning the historic movement we’ve been seeing in our country,” said Emilia Schneider, president of the activist group Student Federation of the University of Chile.

Washington Post, 4/4/2020; Al Jazeera, 2/3/2020; Channel News Asia, 2/3/2020; Organizing Work, 2/11/2020

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