Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal Responds to Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

The following is the statement of Eleanor Smeal, the Founder and President of the Feminist Majority Foundation:

“The Feminist Majority Foundation is outraged at the decision not to indict Darren Wilson.

This should have been a public trial. Wilson should have been charged immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown, who was shot at least six times and left unattended to in the streets of Ferguson for at least four hours.

If Brown, who was an unarmed Black teenager, can’t get justice when the entire world is watching, how can any other Black person expect to receive justice if shot by a white police officer?

If this was an isolated case it would still be an atrocity, but it is not. There is a pattern and practice of police brutality against people of color in the United States, especially against Black women and men. Let us not forget the 13 Black women who were raped and sexually assaulted by an on-duty Oklahoma City police officer. In just the last two weeks, 2 more Black women, Tanesha Anderson and Aura Rosser, were gunned down by officers in Ohio and Michigan, respectively.

Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in the Brown case has never indicted any police officer involved in any shooting and chose to slow walk this case. He used a secretive grand jury, instead of charging the officer and allowing this to be a public trial.

This is a grave injustice. The failure to hold a public trial disrespects the African American majority in Ferguson that peacefully demanded transparency. The Black community’s legitimate grievances have been disrespected. Instead, Ferguson and Missouri have acted with a militarized response from day one, until today when the Governor has called out both the National Guard and declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the decision.

We urge the Prosecutor to honor his word to release all evidence produced in front of the Grand Jury. Now more than ever, the Department of Justice Civil Rights investigation and action is needed as soon as possible.

Ferguson has put the nation on edge because this is not simply about Ferguson, but it is about a broader US experience of a culture of impunity surrounding members of law enforcement in dealing with African Americans and Latinos. “There is now testimony from a large coalition of American citizens representing Black constituencies from not only Ferguson, but also Chicago, Miami, Ohio, and other areas with the United Nations Committee Against Torture to classify this pattern of excessive police force as a form of torture in the United States, not only on the street, but also in prisons.”

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Los Angeles City Council Condemns Brunei’s Taliban-Like Penal Code

The City Council of Los Angeles, California approved a resolution this week condemning Brunei’s brutal new “kill-a-gay, flog-a-woman” penal code and urging the nation and its Sultan to divest its ownership of the Beverly Hills Hotel, not long after a similar resolution was unanimously approved by the Beverly Hills City Council.

“Now, therefore, be it resolved, with the concurrence of the Mayor, that by the adoption of this Resolution, the City of Los Angeles hereby includes in its 2013-2014 Federal Legislative Program support for legislation and/or administrative action which condemns the government of Brunei for adopting laws that impose extreme and inhumane penalties including execution by stoning, flogging and severing of limbs and urges the government of Brunei to divest itself of the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Bel Air Hotel,” the resolution says [PDF].

The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance, which is controlled by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.

Brunei’s new penal code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, which began on May 1, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

According to news reports, the US State Department indicated on Tuesday that the ambassador to Brunei had discussed concerns about the law with the Brunei government. The Feminist Majority Foundation is calling on the United Nations to condemn the government of Brunei and to explore additional options if the Sultan fails to rescind these inhumane laws. In protest of the new laws, the Feminist Majority Foundation launched a massive petition drive and social media campaign, using the hashtag #StopTheSultan, calling on the government of Brunei to rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned. FMF also pulled its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards from the Beverly Hills Hotel and held a rally on Monday in the park across from the venue. Several celebrities, including actor and activist Frances Fisher and comedian Jay Leno, who co-chairs the Global Women’s Rights Awards with Mavis Leno, joined a coalition of women’s rights and LGBT groups at the rally, calling on the Sultan of Brunei to immediately rescind the penal code.

Take Action: Sign the FMF’s petition to rescind Brunei’s brutal code and share it online using the hashtag #StopTheSultan!

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Fast Food Workers Will Hold The Largest-Ever Worldwide Day of Action Next Week

Fast food workers are planning the largest one-day action so far on May 15. Workers will strike in 150 cities around the United States, and protests will be held in thirty other countries, including England, India, and South Africa.

The campaigners demand $15 per hour in wages and the ability to form a union. McDonald’s – which is facing several class-action lawsuits for wage theft – will be targeted in particular. Just this March, a $500,000 settlement was reached with the owner of seven McDonald’s franchises in New York for failure to pay 1,600 mostly minimum wage workers certain wages and legally-required stipends.

Fast food workers across the US have been striking and protesting for higher wages and more labor protections for over a year now – changes that would particularly help women and people of color. Seventy-three percent of all front-line fast food workers are women, and 43 percent are black or Latino. Fifty-two percent of fast food workers have to rely on public assistance because their wages are too low to survive on. “Meanwhile, the CEO of McDonald’s raked in about $13.8 million in fiscal 2012, an estimated 737 times what the average fast-food worker earned,” Michelle Chen reports in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms.

Several city and state legislators, most recently in Seattle and Maryland, have taken it upon themselves to raise their communities’ minimum wages, and President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10. Just last week, however, Senate Republicans blocked a vote on legislation that would have increased the federal minimum wage.

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Feminist Majority Rally Brings Together Women’s and LGBTQ Groups to Protest Brunei Penal Code

The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), which pulled its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards from the Beverly Hills Hotel — owned by the Sultan of Brunei — held a rally yesterday across from the hotel to urge the Sultan to rescind a new, Taliban-like penal code that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians and the public flogging of women who have abortions.

Several groups participated at the rally, including the California Women’s Law Center, Equality California, Human Rights Campaign, Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Services Center, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Mavis and Jay Leno, hosts of the FMF Global Women’s Rights Awards event, FMF Board Member and national organizer Delores Huerta, actor and activist Frances Fisher, FMF Executive Vice President and Executive Editor of Ms. magazine Katherine Spillar, and FMF President Eleanor Smeal, among others, also spoke at the rally, calling for the repeal of the horrific new penal code, which began part of its implementation last week.

“Every day the movement grows to demand that this Taliban-like penal code is rescinded,” said Smeal. “Advocates for LGBT and women’s rights are mobilized against this new Brunei penal code, and we are gratified that the Beverly Hills City Council has taken up a resolution condemning the law. People are outraged.”

“This new penal code is a clear violation of international law and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. We call on the United Nations to investigate whether Brunei should be allowed to keep its membership at the UN if the Sultan fails to rescind these inhumane laws,” continued Smeal.

The Brunei code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, which began on May 1, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

TAKE ACTION: Sign FMF’s petition calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned!

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FMF Pulls Event from Beverly Hills Hotel to Protest Sultan of Brunei Imposing Taliban-Like Rule

LOS ANGELES – The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) announced it is pulling its annual Global Women’s Rights Awards, co-chaired by Jay and Mavis Leno, from the Beverly Hills Hotel because the hotel’s owner, the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is imposing a Taliban-like Brunei penal code, set to go into effect in three stages beginning on May 1, that includes the stoning to death of gay men and lesbians and the public flogging of women who have abortions.

Instead of holding its annual event at the hotel on May 5, FMF has joined with gay and lesbian groups in protesting this gross violation of human rights and will hold a rally at noon on May 5 across from the hotel, in the park on Sunset Boulevard, urging the Sultan to rescind the new penal code which has been condemned by human rights groups and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. FMF will hold the Global Awards event on the evening of May 5 at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Los Angeles.

“We cannot hold a human rights and women’s rights event at a hotel whose owner would institute a penal code that fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal.

“‘Kill-a-gay’ laws, or laws that allow the flogging of women for abortion, violate international law and have no place in civilized society,” said Feminist Majority Foundation Board Member Mavis Leno. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed deep concern about the new penal code and stated that such draconian punishments would contravene international law and international human rights.

FMF today launched a massive petition drive and social media campaign calling on the government of Brunei to immediately rescind the new code and asking the United Nations to take action if these laws go into effect as planned.

“The United Nations must condemn the government of Brunei’s plans and explore additional options, including sanctions, if Brunei fails to rescind this decree,” added Kathy Spillar, executive Vice President of the FMF and the event director.

The new penal code is set to be implemented in three phases over three years. The first phase, beginning tomorrow, will include fines and prison sentences. The second phase includes corporal punishment such as amputations and flogging women who have abortions. The stoning to death of gay men and lesbians is slated for the third phase.

Brunei is an industrialized, petroleum and natural gas country in Southeast Asia. It has been a member of the United Nations since 1984. The UN Human Rights Council is scheduled to conduct its Universal Periodic Review of the country this Friday. The Brunei Investment Agency owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Bel-Air Hotel, and other Dorchester Collection Properties. The Agency is managed by the Brunei Ministry of Finance which is controlled by the Sultan.

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Feminist Majority Foundation Applauds Release of First Report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

Feminist Majority Foundation today celebrates the release of the first report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

“The release of this report is an important step in fighting the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of Feminist Majority Foundation. “We are thrilled that the White House is developing concrete actions and guidelines to support survivors and assist universities in preventing sexual assault. No student should have to face sexual violence while at school. Neither should they be abandoned by school officials they trust to protect them.”

The report, titled “Not Alone: The First Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault,” details steps the Task Force will take to prevent sexual assault and support survivors on college campuses, using recommendations it gathered from a wide variety of people during a 90-day review period. Among other steps, the Task Force will pilot and evaluate sexual assault prevention strategies on campuses, provide specialized training for school officials, and make federal enforcement efforts more transparent and clear with the launch of a new website: www.NotAlone.gov.

In January, President Obama created the Task Force and released an initial report that found 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted in college, but only 12 percent of student victims report the assault. In addition, dozens of schools have recently been placed under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases on campus.

The Feminist Majority Foundation, through its network of hundreds of college campuses nationwide, has launched its Campaign to End Campus Sexual Violence to pressure universities and colleges to do more to reduce sexual assault on campus. The Feminist Majority Foundation is participating in several coalitions on many campuses and providing training for student activists to combat this issue.

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Fetal Homicide Bill Passes Florida Legislature, Moves to Governor’s Desk

The Florida Senate voted 25-14 last week to pass a bill making it a separate crime to kill or harm a fetus while committing a crime against a pregnant woman.

Under current Florida law, a person can already be charged with manslaughter or murder if he or she kills a viable fetus. But this new bill, HB 59, expands the penalties to include causing injury or death to a fetus at any stage of development, starting with conception.

At least 38 states have enacted some type of fetal homicide law, and 23 of those laws apply to the earliest stages of development. Supporters of these laws usually promote them as a way to curb violence against pregnant women. The Florida bill was reportedly a response to a woman who lost her pregnancy after a boyfriend tricked her into taking an abortion pill; the now ex-boyfriend was sentenced to 14 years in prison for drug-tampering. But, fetal homicide laws, by creating independent rights for fetuses separate from pregnant women, have proved to be a dangerous proposition.

States have used fetal homicide laws, like the one is Florida, to criminalize pregnant women or poor pregnancy outcomes. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has asserted that since 2005, there have been more than 200 arrests of women based on arguments that purport to treat fetuses separate from pregnant women. Consider Bei Bei Shuai, who in 2012 was charged with fetal murder after Shuai, who was 33 weeks pregnant, attempted suicide. More recently, Alicia Beltran was arrested after after she sought early prenatal care and told health care workers about her prior use of painkillers and her attempts to stop using on her own. Instead of receiving support, a court ordered Beltran to be detained at an inpatient drug treatment program two hours from her home. Despite her loss of liberty, Beltran did not have an attorney at her initial court appearance; but her fetus did.

Florida Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign HB 59.

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First Woman Nominated to Lead Global US HIV/AIDS Programs

President Obama has nominated Dr. Deborah Birx to become the next leader of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which funds HIV/AIDS programs and prevention efforts around the world. Once confirmed, Dr. Birx will be the first woman to serve as the Coordinator of United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS Globally.

“The Feminist Majority Foundation applauds the nomination of Deborah Birx to be the next Global AIDS Coordinator,” said Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal. “Dr. Birx is the right woman at the right time. As a highly qualified medical doctor who has dedicated her career to HIV/AIDS research and treatment, Dr. Birx is well-positioned to lead the important work of saving lives through the PEPFAR program.”

Since 2005, Dr. Birx has served as the Director of the Division of Global HIV/AIDS in the Center for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where she was responsible for all of the agency’s global HIV/AIDS activities. Prior to that role, Dr. Birx served as Director of the US Military HIV Research Program and as Director of Retrovirology at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She has extensive experience in HIV/AIDS vaccine research and development and has earned various honors and awards for her work.

Dr. Birx will take the helm of PEPFAR at a critical time. Although PEPFAR has had success in fighting HIV/AIDS worldwide by supporting HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people, the problem remains staggering. Over half of all people living with HIV are women, and it is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.

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ACA Helps Women Obtain Contraceptives With No Out-of-Pocket Costs, Study Shows

A recently released study by the Guttmacher Institute reveals that the proportion of US women who paid zero dollars out-of-pocket for birth control significantly increased after the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) contraceptive coverage guarantee went into effect in August 2012. The proportion of women paying zero dollars for oral contraceptive pills increased from 15 to 40 percent, and the proportion of those paying zero for vaginal rings increased from 23 to 52 percent [PDF].

“Our analysis provides the first quantitative evidence that the cost-sharing protection under the ACA is indeed working as intended,” says Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute. “Large numbers of women who couldn’t previously do so are now obtaining birth control without co-pays or deductibles, which allows them to more easily attain contraception’s well-documented health, social and economic benefits.”

The researchers, however, found that there has not been a significant change for injectable or IUD users, even though the ACA guarantees that all new health insurance plans cover FDA-approved contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles. The findings suggest that some private insurers may not be applying the ACA’s mandate to the full range of contraceptive methods available. “Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence from media reports and from health insurance companies’ own publicly available documents suggest that some plans are improperly requiring cost-sharing in circumstances where they shouldn’t,” said Adam Sonfield, senior public policy associate at Guttmacher and study co-author. “This is unacceptable, and state and federal policy makers should step up enforcement as needed.”

The US Supreme Court will also soon determine how many women will benefit from the ACA birth control benefit. In November, the Court agreed to hear a challenge to the ACA contraceptive coverage provision. The Court will decide whether for-profit companies can assert religious objections in order to opt-out of the provision’s requirements and deny this coverage to their female employees.

The Feminist Majority Foundation launched a petition to send the Supreme Court a clear message that companies should not be able to use religion as cover to discriminate against women. Sign our petition, leave stories,and tell the Court why birth control coverage matters to you! You can also share the petition online using the tag #MyBodyMyBC!

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President Obama Announces HIV Cure Initiative

US President Barack Obama announced the launch of The HIV Cure Initiative yesterday, a $100 million investment in National Institutes of Health (NIH) research into a cure to HIV/AIDS.

“The United States should be at the forefront of the discoveries into how to put HIV in long-term remission without requiring lifelong therapies,” President Obama said at a White House event commemorating World AIDS Day. “Or, better yet, eliminate it completely.”

The funds for the initiative will be drawn from existing resources and will be redirected from expiring AIDS research grants. The funds will focus on further developing research into a treatment that has appeared to cure several people of HIV, but has been too “toxic or premature to apply beyond the research setting.”

Other high-priority AIDS research will continue to be supported alongside research for a cure, including treatment during pregnancy, and the effect of the interaction of factors like sex, race, and stigma on treatment. The US will also give five billion dollars to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over the next two years.

The US has been a world leader in funding prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS, accounting for 64 percent of total international assistance to low- and middle- income countries. The President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) currently provides life-saving treatment for 6.7 million people. However, PEPFAR and other prevention programs have been held back by the influence of abstinence-based programs, frequent condom shortages in countries with high rates of those living with HIV/AIDS, and the lack of integration of family planning and HIV/AIDS services.

TAKE ACTION: Tell US leaders that HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs must be integrated with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services including family planning services for women and girls.

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Karzai Signals Delay On Bilateral Security Agreement

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has declared that he will not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) until after Afghanistan’s Presidential elections are held in April 2014.

The Obama Administration has urged Karzai to sign the agreement by the end of the year. The BSA provides that the US will continue to offer assistance to strengthen the security in Afghanistan, provide humanitarian aid, and support economic and civic development. The agreement provides no combat role for US troops.

The Afghan Loya Jirga, or grand council, approved the BSA earlier this week and advised President Karzai to sign the agreement without delay. The Afghan Parliament is expected to consider the agreement soon and present it to President Karzai for finalization. Certain members of Parliament have already voiced strong support for the agreement.

If President Karzai does not sign the BSA before the end of the year, the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan could potentially disrupt and Afghan women and girls could be placed at grave risk. The Obama Administration has indicated that failure to finalize the agreement could lead to a complete pullout of US forces and the loss billions of dollar in international aid.

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, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, over 10 percent of candidates for the upcoming provincial council elections, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university.

TAKE ACTION: Ask President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement and ensure that Afghan women’s rights do not move backwards.

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Updates to PEPFAR Increase Oversight, Funding for Children

Congress passed the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Stewardship and Oversight Act of 2013 on Tuesday, reaffirming and strengthening its commitment to reducing global HIV/AIDS. The 2013 act updates the program to require, among other changes, more collaboration between US departments to combat HIV/AIDS, to require a study of treatment providers, and to extend funding for orphans and other children left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

The program, which began in 2003, has supported HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people. PEPFAR has created partnerships to support countries’ efforts to implement HIV prevention programs and care services and has focused efforts on reaching particularly vulnerable populations.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-IL), an original co-author of PEPFAR in 2003, praised the passage of the Act and its continued bi-partisan support. She also expressed confidence in the program. “I believed then, as I do now, that we can achieve an AIDS-free generation with the right investments, like protecting funding for programs for orphans and vulnerable children, supporting the Global Fund, and guiding the transition toward greater country ownership, while also expanding effective combination prevention programs and HIV/AIDS research,” said Lee.

Although PEPFAR has had unprecedented success in fighting HIV/AIDS globally, the problem remains staggering – particularly for women. Over half of all people living with HIV are women, and it is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.

Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal and National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill have urged that the next leader of PEPFAR must therefore ensure that women’s rights are at the center of the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS. US Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby – who led the implementation of PEPFAR – stepped down from his position earlier this month. Smeal and O’Neill have called on President Obama to appoint a woman in the past.

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Albuquerque Residents Vote On 20 Week Abortion Ban Today

Residents in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico will vote on a ballot measure today that, if passed, would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation without exceptions for the life and health of the mother or survivors of rape or incest.

The New Mexico state legislature has generally been able to block anti-choice legislation, but out-of-state anti-abortion activists were able to collect enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot, eliciting a special off-year election. “These efforts callously disregard the personal circumstances that surround a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy,” writes Respect ABQ Women, a group of allied women, families and organizations dedicated to protecting the decision to end a pregnancy and keeping it between women and their doctors. “The out-of-touch groups behind this ballot measure don’t care about women’s health or safety; their only goal is to judge our families and make it impossible for women to access safe and legal abortions.”

Only about one percent of abortions in the US take place after 20 weeks gestation, and women usually decide to have them because of fetal anomalies, a risk to their health or life, or other often difficult reasons.

This measure is particularly significant because both Texas and Arizona have strict regulations on abortion that force women from across the region to travel to New Mexico for reproductive health care. Albuquerque is the only city in the Southwest where women can terminate a pregnancy past 20 weeks gestation, but if this measure passes, many women would have to travel even further for reproductive health care. In addition, the measure is unique for going through a city legislature rather than through the state, and it could inspire other anti-abortion extremists in cities around the US to attempt the same strategy.

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Senators Introduce Pro-Choice Bill to Combat TRAP Laws

In response to a national abortion ban introduced by Republicans last week and three years of state legislative attacks on access to abortion, a group of Democratic, pro-choice Congress members introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 to the Senate on Wednesday.

The act would prevent states from passing Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, also known as TRAP laws. TRAP laws attempt to create barriers to abortion access by creating extraneous regulations for providers, such as requiring specific dimensions for clinic restrooms or mandating doctors performing abortions to enter into transfer agreements with a local hospital.

State legislatures have attempted to undermine a woman’s right to abortion in record numbers over the past three years. According to Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post, since 2010, some 54 abortion clinics have closed their doors across the nation due to restrictive legislation. Recent legislation in Texas alone has led to 12 abortion clinics closing, and cuts in funding in Texas have led to over 50 family planning clinics that do not perform abortions closing recently.

In 2011 through 2013, some 178 abortion restrictions were passed by state legislatures and signed into law. These are the highest numbers since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 45 states and the District of Columbia have laws subjecting abortion providers to burdensome restrictions not imposed on other medical professions.

“Our bill would stop states from subjecting reproductive health care providers to burdensome requirements that are not applied to medical professionals providing similar services,” Senator Richard Blumenthal and Representative Judy Chu, who are both co-sponsors of the act, wrote in the Huffington Post. “Our bill will nullify dangerous regulations that stifle access to abortion care and endanger women.” Blumenthal and Chu were joined in introducing the act by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) as well as Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Lois Frankel (D-FL).

It has been almost a decade since federal proactive legislation protecting abortion access has been passed. The last time was the passing of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in 1994.

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NC GOP Official Resigns After Racist Interview on Voting Laws

A North Carolina GOP activist and county GOP executive committee member resigned after making racist comments in an interview on The Daily Show last week. In the interview, Don Yelton unabashedly makes racist comments and reveals that the true purpose of the state’s new voting laws is not protection against voter fraud but voter suppression. A video clip of the interview immediately went viral.

In the interview, Yelton says that the recently enacted voter suppression law is “going to kick the Democrats in the butt,” and if the law hurts college kids too “lazy” to get photo IDs or “lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything, so be it.” He shares more offensive opinions about race for several minutes. Yelton then suggested that although he has been “called a bigot before,” he is actually not racist because “one of my best friends is black.”

North Carolina’s new voter suppression laws reduce the number of early voting days, prohibit same day voter registration, and prevent 16 and 17 year olds from pre-registering. Voters will also be required to show government-issued photo ID at the polls before being allowed to vote, but college and university IDs will not be accepted.

These restrictions on voting significantly constrain the ability of certain groups to vote, including racial minorities, women, and students. According to the Brennan Center for Justice [PDF], 25 percent of eligible African-American voters, 18 percent of people aged 65 and up, and many students do not have a current government-issued photo ID card. In addition, 34 percent of women voters do not have an ID that reflects their current name.

The North Carolina GOP has distanced itself from Yelton, saying in a press release that his comments were inappropriate and that he does not speak for the local or state GOP.

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US Ranked 23rd in Women’s Equality in Global Gender Gap Index

The World Economic Forum recently released its 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks the US 23rd in women’s equality. The Global Gender Gap Index is a framework for depicting gender-based disparities around the world and tracking progress on gender parity by using economic, political, education- and health-based criteria. Each country’s ranking is determined by measuring internal gender-based gaps in the ability to access resources and services.

Eighty-six out of 133 countries improved their global gender gap between 2012 and 2013, with women’s political participation experiencing the most progress. But according to the report [PDF], although the US is doing well in women’s education, the country is still struggling to make major progress in closing the gender gap in politics and economics. The US ranks 60th–below India, China, and Uganda–in terms of political empowerment, which takes into account indicators like the ratio of women to men in congress and ministerial positions. Currently, women only make up 18 percent of Congress, having risen only 1 percent since last year. US women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make. African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and Latina women make 55 cents.

One factor negatively affecting women’s economic equality in the US is the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave and other supportive family services. The US is one of only three countries that has no mandated paid maternity leave. In contrast, Pakistan has 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and Canada has 50 weeks. In the US, federal law requires businesses to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many women can’t afford to take time off unpaid.

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Number of Homeless Students in US Has Increased, Hit Record

New information released by the United States Department of Education reveals that a record high number of public school students were homeless last year.

Over 1.1 million students enrolled in preschool or K-12 during the 2011-12 school year were homeless, comprising two percent of all public school students. The data (see PDF) shows a 10 percent increase in the number since the previous year, and a 72 percent increase since the recession started in late 2007. North Dakota is the state with the largest increase in its homeless student population, with a 212 percent increase from last year. But overall, California, New York, Texas, and Florida have the highest numbers of homeless students.

At night, 75 percent of these students double up in places with other families, while 15 percent stay in homeless shelters, 6 percent stay in hotels or motels, and 4 percent are unsheltered–meaning they may stay in cars, parks, campgrounds, temporary trailers, or abandoned buildings.

Federal investments in children and families significantly help to keep kids out of poverty and at a lower risk for homelessness. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, currently in use by over 47 million Americans, reduced childhood poverty in 2012 by 1.67 million children. Despite these benefits, the House of Representatives recently voted to cut $4 billion annually from SNAP for the next ten years, totaling a $40 billion loss for the program.

“Headlines are filled with indicators that the economy is improving, but the record numbers of homeless students show that children and their families are still feeling the effects of a tough economy,” Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions, said in response to the data. “We can protect our homeless children by protecting investments in their housing, education, nutrition, and health in upcoming federal budget debates.”

This data does not reveal the full extent of homelessness in the US. It is estimated that around 3.5 million individuals overall experience homelessness in a given year, though exact numbers are hard to come by.

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Head of US Global AIDS Program to Step Down

United States Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby is expected to step down from his position by the end of the year. As the head of the US Global AIDS program, Ambassador Goosby leads the implementation of PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – which funds HIV/AIDS programs around the world.

PEPFAR has supported HIV testing and counseling and antiretroviral treatment for millions of people. Under Goosby’s leadership, PEPFAR has created partnerships to support countries’ efforts to implement HIV prevention programs and care services and has focused efforts on reaching particularly vulnerable populations.

While PEPFAR has had unprecedented success in fighting HIV/AIDS globally, the problem remains staggering – particularly for women. Over half of all people living with HIV are women, and it is the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide.

Prevention efforts, however, have been marred by politics and the misguided influence of conservative religious ideologies on science. As reported by Jeanne Clark in the Summer 2013 issue of Ms., despite official guidance supporting comprehensive sex education, PEPFAR continues to be held hostage to abstinence programs, which are not proven to be effective in preventing HIV transmission. Research also shows that integrating HIV counseling and testing into family planning and maternal health services can improve service delivery. Yet, PEPFAR funds cannot be used to purchase family planning commodities, and providers receiving PEPFAR money can refuse to offer family planning services. Persistent condom shortages in the global south have also made women more vulnerable to HIV infection.

Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal and National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill have urged that the next leader of PEPFAR must ensure that women’s rights are at the center of the U.S. response to HIV/AIDS. They also call on President Obama to appoint a woman in the post. “The majority of people living with AIDS in countries receiving U.S. assistance are women,” they write. “Women are critical in the fight against HIV, and must have a place at the decision-making table.”

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Kansas Judge Hears Arguments in Abortion Clinic Stalking Case

Kansas judge James Beasley heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether to dismiss a protection order that an abortion clinic director filed against anti-abortion extremist Mark Holick.

Julie Burkhart, director of the South Wind Women’s Center in Wichita and executive director of Trust Women, an organization dedicated to protecting women’s access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, won the temporary protective order in March against Holick, the Wichita regional director of extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue/Operation Save America. As reported in Ms., Holick distributed WANTED-style flyers with Burkhart’s picture and home address on them, and in February 2013 he positioned a large sign at Burkhart’s home, which she shares with her husband and young daughter, that said “Where’s your church?” – interpreted as a reference to the 2009 assassination of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in his church. Burkhart had worked closely with Dr. Tiller and considers him a mentor. Burkhart’s clinic is located in the same building that housed Dr. Tiller’s clinic, and Holick has said that he meets and corresponds with Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion extremist who murdered Dr. Tiller.

Holick argues that his behavior is constitutionally protected free speech.

“Anti-abortion extremists using violence, stalking, and threats should not be able to hide behind the first amendment,” said Katherine Spillar, Executive Vice President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “These intimidation tactics must end.”

Anti-abortion protestors are also using free speech arguments against a Massachusetts clinic buffer zone law. Buffer zone laws have been enacted – and constitutionally upheld – in several states and localities to protect doctors, patients, and clinic staff from anti-abortion intimidation and violence. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide this term whether the Massachusetts law is constitutional.

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UN Human Rights Expert Urges US to End Prolonged Solitary Confinement

An independent United Nations human rights expert called on the U.S. this month to stop the use of prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.

Juan E. Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, referenced the Angola Three in his remarks condemning the practice. The Angola Three refers to three inmates sent to solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison after the killing of a prison guard. Robert King spent 29 years in solitary before he was exonerated and released. Herman Wallace spent more than four decades in solitary before he was granted a new trial and released at age 71. Wallace died shortly thereafter from liver cancer. Albert Woodfox, who maintains his innocence, is still incarcerated.

“The circumstances of the incarceration of the so-called Angola Three clearly show that the use of solitary confinement in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” said Mendez.

Mendez has asked to visit U.S. prisons in California, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania, but has not been able to schedule the visits, which must be cleared by the U.S. State Department as well as the state governors. Solitary Watch estimates that across the US there are around 80,000 prisoners being held in some form of solitary confinement on any given day. California in particular currently holds around 11,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades (Watch a video here). Prisoners are held for around 22 hours per day in tiny cells with no sunlight. If their stay is prolonged, they may experience many adverse psychological effects, including high rates of self-mutilation and suicide [PDF].

Mendez this week briefed the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee–it’s main social, humanitarian, and cultural body–that solitary confinement should never be indefinite or prolonged for any person. He also emphasized that under no circumstances should minors, people with mental disability, or pregnant or breastfeeding women be kept in solitary confinement.

In addition to the U.S., Mendez plans to visit several countries to investigate their prison systems, including Mexico, Thailand, and Georgia, among others.

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