Texas Legislature Passes Restrictive Voting Bill

The Texas Legislature passed a bill on Tuesday that would restrict voting access across the state. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott is expected to sign the bill soon.

The bill, SB 1, imposes several voting restrictions that would predominantly limit voting access for Black, Latinx, and voters with disabilities. It bans drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting, and the unsolicited distribution of mail ballot applications.

SB 1 also reduces early voting hours, imposes stricter ID requirements for mail voting, and strengthens protections for partisan poll watchers. In addition, the bill limits the amount of assistance available for voters with disabilities who need help completing and casting their ballots. 

“I was born in segregation,” said Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman before the House vote on Tuesday. “We think we’ve made progress, and then all of a sudden there’s a new law that moves us back in time.”

The House passed the bill in an 80-41 vote along party lines. After final approval from the Senate, the bill was sent to Gov. Abbott’s desk to be signed.

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to hold off this day forever,” said Texas House Democratic caucus chair Chris Turner. “Now that is has come, we need the U.S. Senate to act immediately to pass federal legislation to protect Texas voters from Republicans’ assault on our democracy.”

Sources: New York Times 8/31/21; Texas Tribune 8/31/21; CNN 8/31/21

Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Texas Abortion Ban

On Wednesday night, the Supreme Court denied abortion providers’ request to block the Texas six-week abortion ban.

The Texas law, which effectively eliminates all abortion in the state, went into effect yesterday after the Supreme Court failed to make a ruling on abortion providers’ emergency request to block the law. In a 5-4 vote last night, the Supreme Court formally ruled not to block the ban.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling overnight is an unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for almost fifty years,” President Biden said in a statement. “By allowing a law to go into effect that empowers private citizens in Texas to sue health care providers, family members supporting a woman exercising her right to choose after six weeks, or even a friend who drives her to a hospital or clinic, it unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impacts.”

In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court left open the possibility for future challenges to be brought against the abortion ban, writing that “this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts.”

The court’s three liberal justices, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan dissented the majority opinion along with Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent.

“No federal appellate court has upheld such a comprehensive prohibition on abortions before viability under current law … Because the court’s failure to act rewards tactics designed to avoid judicial review and inflicts significant harm on the applicants and on women seeking abortions in Texas, I dissent,” she continued. “The court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law.”

Texans seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy will now have to travel out of state in order to receive safe abortion care, which imposes burdensome expenses and disproportionately harms those that already face the most barriers to accessible health care, low-income people and people of color.  

The Texas law not only prohibits abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, but it also incentivizes private citizens to sue anyone who helps a person get an abortion with a potential $10,000 reward if their case is successful.

“Complete strangers will now be empowered to inject themselves in the most private and personal health decisions faced by women,” President Biden continued.

“For the majority to do this without a hearing, without the benefit of an opinion from a court below, and without due consideration of the issues, insults the rule of law and the rights of all Americans to seek redress from our courts. Rather than use its supreme authority to ensure justice could be fairly sought, the highest Court of our land will allow millions of women in Texas in need of critical reproductive care to suffer while courts sift through procedural complexities.”

Sources: NPR 9/2/21; Feminist Newswire 9/1/21; Supreme Court 9/1/21; CNN 9/2/21; Planned Parenthood 9/1/21

Texas Catastrophic Abortion Ban Goes into Effect: Supreme Court Refuses to Act

Texas’s six-week abortion ban went into effect today after the Supreme Court failed to act on abortion providers’ emergency filing to block the law. The ban essentially ends abortion access in Texas, the second-largest state in the country.

The ban, which is the strictest in the country, prohibits abortions from being performed after six weeks of pregnancy, before most even people know they are pregnant. The law allows for no exception for rape or incest. This is the first time that a six-week ban has actually taken effect.

Abortion providers argue that the ban eliminates the protections granted by Roe v. Wade in Texas and will “immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas, barring care for at least 85 percent of Texas abortion patients (those who are six weeks pregnant or greater) and likely forcing many abortion clinics to close.”

“Our ability to provide the best health care for our patients has been turned over to self-appointed vigilantes. This is an abortion ban, plain and simple,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Women’s Health. “It robs Texans of their ability to make decisions about their health and their futures. We have been here before, and we’ll continue serving our patients however we legally can and fighting for their right to safe, compassionate abortion care.”

After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals canceled a hearing to consider a preliminary injunction of the law on Friday, abortion providers filed an emergency request Monday to ask the Supreme Court to block the ban. The Supreme Court did not act on the request.

The Texas law, known as SB 8, also allows private citizens to sue anyone who aids and abets someone getting an abortion after six weeks, including someone who offers financial assistance for the procedure or provides transportation to a clinic. Some argue it places a “bounty” on those who help people get abortions, given that it offers a $10,000 reward to individuals who bring successful suits.

Eleanor Smeal, President of Feminist Majority, stated, “this is the most outrageous, insulting, and harmful anti-abortion bill that has ever been considered in our country. There is no law and order here– this bill not only robs individuals of their bodily autonomy, it deputizes extremists with the power to harass any person remotely connected to an abortion patient. It is a clear violation of Roe v. Wade.”

“In the last decade, the Texas legislature has passed many racist, classist, and dangerous abortion restrictions that have made it very difficult to access care,” Kamyon Conner, executive director of Texas Equal Access Fund, said in a statement. “This law essentially bans abortions and codifies intimidation. Anti-abortion politicians are empowering extremists to use lawsuits to harass and intimidate anyone who helps someone get an abortion.”

Abortion providers such as Whole Woman’s Health and Planned Parenthood were performing abortions up until midnight last night.

“Our clinic staff in Texas worked until midnight last night and showed right back up to take care of patients this morning. This is what heroes do,” Whole Women’s Health tweeted this morning.

“To be clear: Planned Parenthood health centers remain open, and we are here to help Texans navigate this dangerous law,” Alexis McGill Johnson, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said on Twitter. “We will continue to fight in courts for abortion rights and access.”

Sources: Washington Post 9/1/21; CNN 9/1/21; New York Times 8/30/21; Feminist Newswire 8/30/21; Planned Parenthood 8/30/21; Twitter 9/1/21; Twitter 9/1/21

Thousands Protest for Voting Rights on 58th Anniversary of March on Washington

On Saturday, thousands of people protested in Washington, D.C. and nationwide to both honor the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington and rally for voting rights.

Participants of the rally, which was called the March on For Voting Rights, marched to protest the onslaught of recently passed state laws that restrict the right to vote. These laws predominantly restrict voting access for people of color and disabled people by creating burdensome requirements of mail voting, curtailing voting hours and locations, and limiting the assistance available for delivering mail ballots.

The march, organized by the National Action Network and other organizations, took place on the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Protesters gathered at the U.S. Capitol building to rally for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would work to end gerrymandering and restore key provisions to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, respectively. People also marched for a federal $15 minimum wage, an end to police brutality, an end to the filibuster, and D.C. statehood.

Several protesters also joined the Make Good Trouble rally which marched on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and took place the same day.

“The moral and constitutional crisis we face today is the direct result of forces in state legislatures that organized to push back against the political power that mobilized here 58 years ago today,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at the Make Good Trouble Rally.

“Because we don’t have sufficient federal protections, we still have actors in the state legislatures in 49 states trying to, and in many ways succeeding in, suppressing the vote, blocking living wages, police reform, health care, education funding and many more. So we are not gathered here to commemorate something that happened once upon a time. We are here today to continue the work of our foreparents who fought to expand democracy and make ‘liberty and justice for all’ a reality.”

“It’s time to believe again,” he continued. “It’s time to believe the heart and soul of democracy can live. With every breath we have, while we still have time, together let’s rise up and do more to build a true one America that works for all of us.”

Sources: NPR 8/28/21; The Guardian 8/28/21; Washington Post 8/28/21; Poor People’s Campaign 8/30/21

Appeals Court Cancels Hearing for Texas Law That Will Ban Most Abortions

A Texas law that would effectively ban all abortions is set to take effect on Wednesday after an appeals court canceled a hearing Friday designed to challenge the law.  

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court Appeals was scheduled to have a hearing today to determine the constitutionality of the Texas abortion ban, SB 8. The court, however, canceled the hearing late Friday evening. Abortion providers then filed emergency motions on Saturday to block the law from going into effect, but the appeals court denied those motions Sunday.

SB 8 would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people are aware they are pregnant. In addition, the law would empower private citizens to sue anyone who helps a person get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, including someone who offers financial assistance for the abortion or transportation to a clinic. SB 8 deputizes private citizens to enforce the ban by offering individuals a $10,000 award for every successful suit.

Several abortion rights organizations, such as Whole Woman’s Health, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit to challenge the ban in July. Providers have called the law a “bounty hunting scheme.”

“If this law is not blocked by September 1, abortion access in Texas will come to an abrupt stop,” Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center of Reproductive Rights, told the Texas Tribune.

According to Whole Women’s Health, 90% of patients seeking abortion care in Texas are beyond six weeks of pregnancy.

“Laws like SB 8 cause harm,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, President and CEO of Whole Women’s Health Alliance.

“Patients know that having an abortion is what is best for them. Abortion bans do not help them to prevent unplanned pregnancy or give them resources to plan their families—they will block highly trained, compassionate professionals like our clinic staff teams from providing care. This will force Texans to continue pregnancies against our will; and will force pregnant people to flee to other states or take matters into their own hands.”

Sources: Texas Tribune 8/29/21; The Guardian 8/30/21; Feminist Newswire 7/14/21; The Hill 8/29/21; Whole Women’s Health Alliance 2021

Supreme Court Blocks Biden Administration’s Eviction Moratorium

The Supreme Court threw out the most recent moratorium on evictions Thursday despite rising cases of the Delta variant, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of being evicted from their homes.

In an eight-page opinion, the court wrote that in order for the eviction moratorium to continue, Congress would need to pass legislation to that effect.

Earlier this month, the previous eviction moratorium expired. In an effort to prevent the already rapid spread of the Delta variant, the Biden administration and the Center for Disease Control extended the moratorium until October 3. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that this was an overreach of federal power and therefore unconstitutional. Only Congress could authorize a moratorium on evictions, according to the court.

“Congress was on notice that a further extension would almost surely require new legislation, yet it failed to act in the several weeks leading up to the moratorium’s expiration,” the majority wrote. “It is indisputable that the public has a strong interest in combating the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant. But our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan dissented the majority opinion, arguing that the moratorium was needed to prevent transmission of the highly contagious Delta variant.

“COVID-19 transmission rates have spiked in recent weeks, reaching levels that the CDC puts as high as last winter: 150,000 new cases per day,” Breyer wrote. “The public interest strongly favors respecting the CDC’s judgment at this moment, when over 90% of counties are experiencing high transmission rates,” he continued.

According to the Washington Post, the number of Covid-19 patients hospitalized per day has exceeded 100,000 for three days in a row as of Thursday.

Although Congress appropriated billions of dollars for rental assistance, administrative delays have prevented that aid from being disbursed to tenants who have missed rent payments. $46.5 billion has been allocated in rental assistance for both tenants and landlords, but only $5.1 billion of those funds have been distributed due to backlogs.

“As a result of this ruling, families will face the painful impact of evictions, and communities across the country will face greater risk of exposure to COVID-19,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

“Tonight, the Supreme Court failed to protect the 11 million households across the country from violent eviction in the middle of a deadly global pandemic,” said Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), who led a protest earlier this month to extend the eviction moratorium’s deadline.  

“We already know who is going to bear the brunt of this disastrous decision: Black and brown communities, and especially Black women.”

Sources: CNN 8/27/21; Supreme Court 8/26/21; Feminist Newswire 8/4/21; Washington Post 8/27/21; Washington Post 8/26/21; New York Times 8/27/21; Feminist Newswire 8/3/21

House Approves $3.5 Trillion Budget Resolution

The House passed a $3.5 trillion budget plan on Tuesday that will enable Congress to pass legislation to address climate change, health care, immigration, and education.

The budget, which is a legislative framework that does not require the president’s signature, was approved by a 220-212 vote along party lines. It will lay the groundwork for Democrats to pass legislation through the reconciliation process, which prevents bills from being blocked by the filibuster. The final reconciliation bill will be created and voted on this fall.

The budget resolution seeks to expand Medicare to include vision, hearing, and dental benefits. It would allow Congress to pass legislation to lower prescription drug prices, improve paid sick leave and child care access, and create more programs to improve the social safety net for low-income families. The plan also aims to establish universal free pre-K and make the first two years of community college free.

In terms of immigration, the budget will set groundwork to create a legislative pathway to permanent citizenship for undocumented people. The resolution will also address climate change, setting goals to limit carbon dioxide emissions by 2035.

“Passing this rule paves the way for building back better, which will forge legislative progress unseen in 50 years that will stand for generations along the New Deal and the Great Society,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said.

Debate in the House delayed the budget resolution’s vote. Several moderate democrats initially argued that the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed by the Senate earlier this month, should be voted on before the budget plan. Progressive democrats disagreed, stating that they would not vote for the infrastructure bill without first approving the budget resolution.

“Our position remains unchanged: We will work first to pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill so we can deliver these once in a generation, popular, and urgently needed investments to poor and working families, and then pass the infrastructure bill to invest in our roads, bridges, and waterways,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“The American people delivered us the House, Senate, and White House not only to improve roads and bridges, but to improve their daily lives, too,” Rep. Jayapal said. “We can do that by using this governing moment to ensure that President Biden’s complete agenda is realized.”

After reaching a compromise, Democrats decided to vote on the budget resolution Tuesday and promised to vote on the infrastructure bill by September 27. Several members of the House, including Speaker Pelosi, called the day a win.

“A national budget should be a statement of our national values,” Speaker Pelosi said. “And this will be the case.”

Sources: Washington Post 8/24/21; CNN 8/24/21; USA Today 8/24/21; NPR 8/24/21

Supreme Court Denies Biden Administration’s Request to Pause Reimplementation of “Remain in Mexico” Policy

The Supreme Court ordered the Biden administration Tuesday to reimplement former President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that requires migrants to wait in Mexico until their immigration hearing in the United States.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas ordered the Biden administration to revive the policy, which had been formally ended by the Homeland Security Secretary this year.

The Biden administration had requested that the Supreme Court halt the order issued by the lower court. The Supreme Court denied Biden’s request in a 6-3 decision along ideological lines. Now, the “Remain in Mexico” policy must go into effect.

The policy has forced tens of thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. court date in Mexico, leaving them vulnerable to kidnappings, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to prevent this egregious policy from harming one more person and will use every tool at our disposal to oppose the Remain in Mexico policy, or any like it, and we urge the Biden administration to do the same,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, in a statement.

“People have a fundamental human and legal right to seek safety and asylum in our country, as millions have done throughout our nation’s history. President Trump’s remain in Mexico policy subjected thousands to unthinkable violence and deprived them of due process. This policy flies in the face of the values we aspire to as a nation.”

Sources: CNN 8/24/21; Feminist Newswire 8/17/21; Washington Post 8/24/21; National Immigration Law Center 8/24/21

House Passes John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to Strengthen Landmark Voting Rights Act

The House passed on Tuesday the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that would strengthen and restore key provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation is named after the civil and voting rights leader John Lewis, who died a year ago.

The bill, HR 4, would restore the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Preclearance empowers the Department of Justice to prevent states and districts with a history of voter discrimination from making changes to their voting procedures that would restrict the right to vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court decided that the formula to determine the preclearance threshold was out-of-date, effectively eliminating the preclearance measure originally set in place by the Voting Rights Act.

“Today, old battles have become new again as we face the most pernicious assault on the right to vote in generations,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), a sponsor of the bill.

“It’s clear: federal oversight is urgently needed. With the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we’re standing up and fighting back. By preventing states with a recent history of voter discrimination from restricting the right to vote, this bill restores the full promise of our democracy and advances the legacy of those brave Foot Soldiers like John Lewis who dedicated their lives for the sacred right to vote.”

The act would also restore Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from creating voting rules that would discriminate against people of color. The Supreme Court weakened this section of the VRA this year by upholding two racially discriminatory Arizona voting laws.

“For decades, the Voting Rights Act stood as a singularly effective bulwark against the threat of voter discrimination,” said Wendy R. Wiser, Vice President of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law.

“At a moment when states across the country are passing laws that make it harder to vote—many of them targeted at voters of color—the need for a robust, revitalized VRA could not be starker. By restoring the law’s core protections, The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would safeguard the right of every citizen to participate in our democracy on equal footing.”

The bill was passed along party lines. It now heads to the Senate, where it will likely face steep opposition.

“No matter our race, background, or zip code, we all value the freedom to vote and believe that all Americans should have a say in key decisions that impact our lives,” said Wade Henderson, Interim President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“We absolutely must come together to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore the federal government’s ability to block state and local governments from passing racially discriminatory bills.”

Sources: CNN 8/24/21; NPR 8/24/21; The Hill 8/24/21; Congresswoman Terri Sewell 8/17/21; Feminist Newswire 7/2/21

Kathy Hochul Sworn in as the First Woman Governor of New York as Andrew Cuomo Resigns

Kathy Hochul was sworn in as governor of New York early this morning. She made history as the first woman to hold the position.

Governor Hochul replaced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned from office after significant evidence showed that he had sexually harassed multiple women. Cuomo, facing impeachment, officially stepped down as governor last night.

“At the end of my term, whenever it ends, no one will ever describe my administration as a toxic environment,” Governor Hochul said at a press conference. “I want people to know that I’m ready for this. It’s not something that we expected or asked for, but I am fully prepared to assume the responsibility as 57th governor of the State of New York.”

Hochul, a former congressperson from Buffalo, New York, has worked as lieutenant governor for seven years. She has already begun to appoint her aides, naming Karen Persichilli Keogh as Secretary to the Governor and Elizabeth Fine as chief legal counselor. Hochul has vowed to dismiss any of the former governor’s staff who were “named as doing anything unethical.”

Cuomo resigned from office after months of investigation by the state attorney general’s office into accusations of sexual harassment made against him. 11 women came forward with reports that Cuomo had sexually harassed them. A report by the state attorney general’s office released in August found Cuomo guilty of harassing the 11 women.

One survivor, Brittany Commisso, was an employee of Cuomo’s who he sexually harassed multiple times at work.

“If I told someone, I’m done,” Commisso told the Times Union. “And who do you tell?”

Several other former Cuomo staffers suffered similar abuses. Lyndsey Boylan, the first woman to publicly come forward with her experience of being sexually harassed by Cuomo, began working for the Cuomo Administration in 2015. She resigned in 2018 after years of workplace harassment.

“I am speaking up because I have the privilege to do so when many others do not. No one should have to be defined or destroyed by this kind of sexual harassment. Nor should they be revictimized if they decide to speak their own truth,” Boylan wrote in February. “I hope that sharing my story will clear the path for other women to do the same.”  

Governor Hochul has distanced herself from Cuomo, saying that she did not work closely with the former governor. She already faces many challenges as governor, including the rapid spread of coronavirus cases across New York and distributing rental assistance as the state’s eviction moratorium will soon expire this month.

She has said that she plans to run for governor next year.

Sources: CNN 8/24/21; New York Times 8/24/21; New York Times 8/11/21; NPR 8/24/21; NPR 8/9/21; New York Attorney General 8/3/21; Medium 2/24/21

House Members Introduce Resolution to Compel FDA to Eliminate In-Person Requirement for Medication Abortion

Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform introduced a resolution Thursday that urges the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to eliminate the requirement that people seeking a medication abortion must obtain the medication in-person.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA required that mifepristone, the first of two pills used in medication abortion, be picked up in person at a doctor’s office, hospital, or clinic. In July of 2020, the FDA temporarily lifted the in-person pickup requirement to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. The requirement was temporarily suspended again in April.

Without the requirement that mifepristone be dispensed in person, people seeking medication abortion are able to order and receive the pills in the mail.

The resolution is sponsored by House Oversight Committee Chairperson Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO). It asks the FDA to permanently eliminate the in-person requirement so as to improve access to medication abortion.

“Mifepristone is extremely safe—the FDA’s own data confirms this. It’s time that we trust the science and ensure access to safe, legal abortion, particularly for communities where abortion care has been historically pushed out of reach,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) in a statement.

Mifepristone is well established as a safe and common means to terminate an early pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advocates for the in-person dispensing restriction to be eliminated, saying that the requirement is “not based on medical evidence or need.” According to the ACOG, the likelihood of complications arising from a medication abortion is less than 1 percent.

“There is no reason for the FDA to impose unnecessary restrictions on the medication abortion drug mifepristone—a safe and effective form of medication abortion care,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).

“For people already experiencing health disparities—including people of color, people with lower incomes, and people in rural communities—the FDA’s restrictions often push access to medication abortion out of reach. We cannot allow discriminatory stigma to keep people from accessing the health care they deserve,” she said.

“The science is clear: The current restrictions on mifepristone are medically unnecessary. For two decades, these restrictions have only created additional barriers for patients seeking abortion care,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.

“It is critical that the FDA follow the science and lean into facts to ensure that all people can access a safe and legal abortion without obstacles. I thank Reps. Maloney, Pressley, DeGette, and Lee for their leadership in highlighting the importance of equitable, science-based policies that protect the health and rights of patients.”

Sources: NBC News 8/19/21; The Hill 8/19/21; Congress.gov 8/17/21; Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney 8/19/21; ACOG 8/2020; Planned Parenthood 8/19/21

U.S. Education Department Cancels $5.8 Billion in Student Loans for Borrowers with Permanent Disabilities

On Thursday, the Education Department announced that over 323,000 borrowers who have permanent disabilities will automatically receive federal student loan forgiveness, amounting to a total of $5.8 billion in canceled student loan debt.

The federal student loan forgiveness process for borrowers who cannot work due to permanent disabilities will now be automated. Borrowers declared permanently disabled by a doctor, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Social Security Administration (SSA) will be automatically identified by an SSA data match to have their loans forgiven.

“Today’s action removes a major barrier that prevented far too many borrowers with disabilities from receiving the total and permanent disability discharges they are entitled to under the law,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement.

“From day one, I’ve stressed that the Department of Education is a service agency. We serve students, educators, and families across the country to ensure that educational opportunity is available to all. We’ve heard loud and clear from borrowers with disabilities and advocates about the need for this change and we are excited to follow through on it. This change reduces red tape with the aim of making processes as simple as possible for borrowers who need support.”

Before this announcement, borrowers with permanent disabilities were still entitled to have their student loans discharged, but they were required to apply for the debt relief. Additionally, the program was not well-known, so few borrowers with permanent disabilities even knew they were eligible to apply, let alone took advantage of the program. According to NPR, between 2016 and 2019, only 28 percent of borrowers eligible for debt relief had their loans discharged.

Now that the process is automated, more eligible borrowers will be able to have their federal student loans canceled efficiently. The change will go into effect in September.

“This is a life-altering announcement for hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers with disabilities,” said National Student Legal Defense Network Vice President and Chief Counsel Dan Zibel in a statement.

“We have long been calling on the Department to take this step and eliminate unnecessary red tape that has kept too many people caught in a cycle of debt. Today’s step is another indication that the Department is listening to the voices of student loan borrowers.”

Sources: U.S. Department of Education 8/19/21; Washington Post 8/19/21; CNN 8/19/21; NPR 8/19/21; NPR 12/4/19; National Student Legal Defense Network 8/19/21

Appeals Court Upholds Texas Ban on Common Second-Trimester Abortion Procedure

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Texas can ban the standard dilation and evacuation abortion procedure used in the second trimester of pregnancy. Texas will be the first state in the country to ban the procedure.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Texas law passed in 2017 banning D&E abortions could go into effect. This ruling reverses a lower court’s decision that the law was unconstitutional because it “imposes an undue burden on a large fraction of women” and “amounted to a ban on all D&E abortions.”

The dilation and evacuation procedure is widely regarded as one of the safest ways to terminate a pregnancy during the second trimester. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a statement that D&E is “the safest and medically preferred abortion procedure in the second trimester. D&E results in fewer medical complications than other abortion procedures, and often is necessary to preserve a woman’s health.”

The Texas law restricts dilation and evacuation abortions by requiring providers to stop a fetus’s heart before performing the D&E procedure. This added requirement is medically unnecessary during the pregnancy time frame outlined by the law, given that a fetus cannot feel pain until at least 24 weeks of gestation, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The methods used to stop a fetus’s heart are also invasive and can create health risks to the patient, including infection, uterine perforation, or cardiac arrest, according to Molly Duane, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“This ban threatens the safety of my patients and punishes doctors for using our best medical judgement, training, and expertise,” said Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion provider with Planned Parenthood Center for Choice, in a statement. “As a physician, I see the real-life consequences of these politically motivated restrictions. I know firsthand that any time health care is restricted, people suffer—and their families and communities are also irreparably harmed.”

In 2017, Judge Lee Yeakel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District ruled that the added procedure was medically unnecessary and that the law should not be upheld, writing that precedent “does not allow the imposition of an additional medical procedure on the standard D&E abortion—a procedure not driven by medical necessity.”

The additional procedure would amount to a total ban on D&E abortions. At least three abortion providers would no longer perform D&E abortions if they were first required to stop the fetus’s heart, given the substantial health risks this requirement imposes on the patient.

“This ban is about cutting off abortion access, and nothing else,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Women’s Health, in a statement.

“In no other area of medicine would politicians consider preventing doctors from using a standard procedure. It should never be a crime for doctors to use their best medical judgment and follow the most current science. Texans deserve the best care available, and this law prevents that.”

“Texas has been hellbent on legislating abortion out of existence, and it is galling that a federal court would uphold a law that so clearly defies decades of Supreme Court precedent,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“There is no question that today’s decision will harm those who already face the greatest barriers to health care.”

Sources: New York Times 8/18/21; The Texas Tribune 8/18/21; The Hill 8/18/21; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 11/14/19; American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists 2021; Center for Reproductive Rights 8/18/21

United States Sends First Batch of Promised 500 million Vaccine Doses to be Donated Internationally

On Tuesday, the Biden administration shipped nearly 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Rwanda as part of the administration’s promise to donate 500 million vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.

Rwanda will receive 488,370 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, 188,370 of which come from the 500 million doses bought by the Biden administration earlier this year to be donated globally, and the rest of the doses coming from the United States’ pre-existing supply. President Biden announced his pledge to donate millions of vaccines internationally at the G-7 Summit in June.

“Today, we are shipping over 488,000 doses of Pfizer to Rwanda, including the first 100,000 doses from @POTUS’ 500 million shots pledged and purchased this summer. This is just the beginning,” White House assistance press secretary Kevin Munoz wrote on Twitter.

The administration plans to send 200 million Pfizer doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of the year. The remaining 300 million doses are set to be shipped by mid-2022.

Rwanda’s Covid-19 cases have decreased to an average of 584 new infections each day, according to Reuters. Research from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine shows that 3.1 percent of the Rwandan population is fully vaccinated so far.

In the United States, 49 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that it had already shipped over 110 million doses from the U.S. supply of the Covid-19 vaccine to more than 60 countries.

Public health officials applauded the administration’s commitment to donating vaccines globally given increased calls for wealthy nations such as the United States to take more of a lead in promoting vaccine access around the world.

According to the One Campaign, a global poverty and disease relief organization, “Wealthy countries have secured enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to vaccinate their entire populations almost three times over, leaving many poorer countries struggling to vaccinate even their most vulnerable populations.”

“With COVID-19 raging globally and new variants emerging constantly, wealthy countries face a clear choice,” said Tom Hart, acting CEO of the One Campaign, in a statement. “Share more doses and shorten the pandemic or continue to hoard doses and prolong COVID-19 indefinitely.”

Sources: Reuters 8/17/21; CNN 8/17/21; Washington Post 6/9/21; The Hill 8/17/21; Washington Post 8/2/21; White House 8/3/21; One Campaign 8/3/21

Largest Ever Increase in Food Stamp Benefits Approved by Biden Administration

On Monday, the Biden Administration announced that food stamp benefits would increase by 25% above pre-pandemic levels. This is the greatest benefits increase in the history of the program.  

Before the pandemic, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits amounted to $121 per person each month. Under the new adjustment, SNAP benefits are expected to increase by $36.24 per person each month. The increase in benefits will take effect on October 1.

SNAP helps to feed over 42 million Americans, according to the USDA.

The increase was determined by a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which analyzes the price of groceries needed to feed a family of four. The Thrifty Food Plan sets the benefits afforded by SNAP.

The revised benefits will help millions of low-income families be able to achieve a healthy diet. According to a USDA study, nine out of ten SNAP participants faced barriers to maintaining a healthy diet under the current program, given that food stamp benefits were unsuccessful in adequately covering the rising cost of healthy foods.

“This outmoded food plan has limited SNAP’s purchasing power and made unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time it takes to plan and prepare meals and the constraints faced by time-strapped working families,” said Lisa Davis, Vice President of Share Our Strength, an organization working to end childhood hunger, in a statement.

“The updated Thrifty Food Plan better reflects the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods, particularly leafy greens and lean proteins, which can be more costly.”

Four factors, including current food prices, the typical American diet, dietary guidelines, and nutrients found in certain food items, guided the re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan.

“A modernized Thrifty Food Plan is more than a commitment to good nutrition—it’s an investment in our nation’s health, economy, and security,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health care costs, and more. And the additional money families spend on groceries helps grow the food economy, creating thousands of jobs along the way.”

Sources: Washington Post 8/16/21; NPR 8/17/21; USDA 8/16/21; No Kid Hungry 8/16/21

Texas Federal Judge Orders Biden to Reimplement Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Migrant Policy

A federal judge in Texas ruled Friday that the Biden administration must reimplement former President Trump’s border policy that requires migrants to wait in Mexico until their immigration hearing in the United States.

The Migrant Protection Protocols policy, or “remain in Mexico,” forces migrants, many of whom are not originally from Mexico, to stay in Mexico until their U.S. court date. Migrant Protection Protocols has sent 68,000 non-Mexican migrants to Mexico to await their court date since its enactment in 2019. This puts migrants in dangerous situations, leaving them vulnerable to kidnappings, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

The Biden administration suspended the “remain in Mexico,” policy earlier this year. In June, the policy was formally ended by a memo sent by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Texas and Missouri filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration in April, asserting that the administration had violated laws by ending the policy and that revoking the policy would impose significant cost burdens on the states.

U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled in favor of the states and ordered that the policy by revived. The Biden administration has appealed Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision.

Several immigration rights organizations have criticized the court’s decision, noting that the policy leaves migrants vulnerable in refugee camps on the Mexican border.

“Legal or not, it certainly is an inhumane policy,” said legal director Robert Painter of American Gateways, a Texas organization that offers legal services to low-income immigrants and asylum seekers.

Sources: CNN 8/14/21; Texas Tribune 8/16/21; Reuters 8/14/21

Texas Senate Passes Restrictive Voting Bill After Sen. Alvarado’s 15-hour Filibuster

The Texas Senate voted Thursday to pass a bill that would further restrict voting rights in the state. Their vote came just after Texas Senator Carol Alvarado ended her 15-hour filibuster to oppose the bill.  

The bill, SB 1, was passed in a 18-11 vote along party lines.

SB 1 would prohibit drive-thru voting, ban 24-hour voting and extended hours, and make it illegal for election officials to send voters unsolicited mail ballot applications. The bill would place additional restrictions on mail voting, including more stringent ID requirements for mail-in ballots. It would also empower partisan poll watchers, increase video surveillance, and impose harsher restrictions on assistance available to voters.

“Senate Bill 1 slowly but surely chips away at our democracy,” said Sen. Alvarado during her filibuster of the bill. “It adds rather than removes barriers for Texas seniors, persons with disabilities, African Americans, Asian and Latino voters from the political process.”

Sen. Alvarado began her filibuster of the bill on Wednesday night and continued for 15 hours into Thursday morning. She stood for the full 15 hours and did not eat, drink, or use the restroom during the entire time so as not to break the filibuster.

Sen. Alvarado spent the 15 hours discussing how SB 1 would suppress the right to vote for many Texans and would disproportionately affect people of color, low-income people, and people with disabilities.

“President Lyndon B. Johnson said the Voting Rights Act struck away the last major shackle of the fierce and ancient bond of slavery,” she said. “Senate Bill 1 is a regressive step back in the direction of that dark and painful history.”

Other civil rights groups also criticized the bill’s provisions that would limit voting access for underrepresented communities. 

“Election measures lose any semblance of integrity if they cross the line into interfering with the reasonable, necessary, and legally protected accommodations the millions of Texans living with disabilities need to make our voice heard in our democracy,” said Chase Bearden, deputy executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.

At a press conference in Washington, DC Thursday, faith leaders and Texas legislators with the Poor People’s Campaign delivered remarks to protest the wave of voter suppression in Texas and across the country.

“This attack on our democracy, it is in peril, and we have to lean on our deepest moral traditions that are about defending the vulnerable, that are about ensuring a voice for absolutely everybody, that are about lifting from the bottom, so that everybody can rise,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis at the press conference.

“They will use the law to try to intimidate voters from our communities,” said Representative Jarvis Johnson of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

“The message has to be sent that this is not going to be allowed, and we will not stand by idly and quietly.”

Sources: CNN 8/12/21; Ms. Magazine 8/12/21; Texas Legislature; NBC News 8/12/21; Texas Tribune 8/12/21; Twitter 8/12/2; KXAN 7/9/21

Charlotte Passes Nondiscrimination Ordinance to Protect LGBTQ Community

On Monday, Charlotte, North Carolina’s city council unanimously voted to pass an ordinance that extends nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people.

The new ordinance protects several new classes from discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and passenger vehicles for hire and procurement. It prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, pregnancy, and natural hairstyles.

These protections come five years after Charlotte had initially tried to expand protections for LGBT residents but ultimately failed. The city had passed a measure allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. However, the state of North Carolina blocked this expansion by passing House Bill 2, or the “bathroom bill,” which prohibited trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. HB2 also prevented cities across North Carolina from passing nondiscrimination ordinances.

In 2017, House Bill 2 was repealed by a replacement law after sparking national controversy. The new law, however, prevented cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances until December of 2020.

“The nation took notice then,” Erin Barbee of the Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce said. “And the nation will take notice now.”

Charlotte’s public accommodation protections will go into effect on October 1, while the employment protections will go into effect on January 1.

Under the ordinance, employers cannot refuse to hire someone based on any of the new protected classes. While state and federal laws mandate these protections for employers with 15 or more employees, the city ordinance is applicable to employers with less than 15 employees as well.

“Leaders across North Carolina—including our U.S. Senators from NC—should look at what’s happening in our state: Communities are taking a stand to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, which leads to safer, more inclusive places to live, work, and raise families,” said Allison Scott, Director of Impact and Innovation at the Campaign for Southern Equality, in a statement.

According to a Human Rights Campaign annual report, Charlotte is the second-worst city across the nation in terms of anti-trans violence.

“Charlotte is the second most dangerous city in the country for transgender and gender non-conforming people—especially Black transgender women,” said community outreach director for Charlotte Black Pride, Rell Lowery, in a statement. “With today’s vote, the Charlotte City Council committed to making the city a safer place to live and work for LGBTQ people and people of color.”

“It’s time now to ensure that no LGBTQ North Carolinian is left vulnerable to discrimination,” Scott said, “and that will require action from elected officials at every level of government.”

Sources: NBC News 8/10/21; City of Charlotte 8/10/21; The Charlotte Observer 8/10/21; Equality North Carolina 8/10/21; Axios 4/19/21

Federal Judge Blocks Several Indiana Abortion Restrictions

On Tuesday, a federal judge issued permanent injunctions against several Indiana laws that restrict abortion access, ruling them unconstitutional.

Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana blocked a number of Indiana abortion laws that had been challenged in court by a 2018 lawsuit brought by Whole Women’s Health Alliance.

Of the laws challenged by the lawsuit, Judge Barker ruled unconstitutional Indiana’s ban on using telemedicine in abortion care. She explained that the state did not have the right to regulate the use of telemedicine consultations between people seeking medication abortions and physicians since there was no evidence that banning telemedicine visits in such circumstances would benefit people’s health, especially since telemedicine can improve accessibility.

“The State’s attempt to explain its basis for excluding the far-reaching benefits of telemedicine from this category of patients is feeble at best, especially given the widespread use of telemedicine throughout Indiana as well as the overall safety of medication abortions,” Judge Barker wrote in her ruling.

In addition to the telemedicine ban, Judge Barker permanently blocked Indiana’s law that doctors must hold an in-person examination of a patient before they can receive a medication abortion. She also blocked a requirement that only doctors can administer a medication abortion during the first trimester, as well as a ban on second-trimester abortions administered anywhere other than a hospital or surgery center.

Indiana’s law dictating that doctors must tell patients seeking an abortion that a fetus could feel pain before 20 weeks and that life begins when an egg is fertilized was ruled unconstitutional as well, given that this information was found to be untruthful and misleading.

“This is a tremendous victory for abortion rights—just when Hoosiers and this entire country need it most,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Women’s Health Alliance.

Sources: AP News 8/11/21; IndyStar 8/10/21; U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana 8/10/21; Forbes 8/10/21

Senate Passes Biden’s $1 Trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

Today, the Senate passed President Biden’s expansive bipartisan infrastructure bill. The package contains $550 billion in new federal funds to invest in American infrastructure over the next five years. The bill will now move to the House.

After months of difficult negotiations, the infrastructure measure passed in the Senate by a vote of 69-30. While the passed version of the bill is significantly less comprehensive than the $2.3 trillion agenda that President Biden initially created, it still includes key components of Biden’s original plan.

The bill would invest $110 billion in roads, bridges, and large infrastructure projects. According to the White House, 173,000 miles of the country’s highways and 45,000 bridges are in condition that needs improvement.

These funds would also work to address climate change and manage risks to infrastructure brought about by climate change. $21 billion would go to cleaning up superfund and brownfield sites, which are areas of severe pollution and contain hazardous contamination. Proximity to these sites can cause higher levels of lead in the blood. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by the pollution at superfund sites according to the White House, given that 26% of Black Americans and 29% of Hispanic Americans, a higher percentage than Americans overall, live within three miles of these areas.

The infrastructure package also aims to modernize public transit by allocating $39 billion to improve accessibility at stations, add public transit to communities that did not previously have service, and increase the number of zero-emission vehicles in operation. $66 billion will be invested in both passenger and freight rail, bringing rail transit to places outside the northeastern United States that have little to no train service.

Additionally, the bill would work to increase high-speed internet access across the country. $65 billion will go to improving broadband infrastructure, and a federal program will be created to assist low-income households in obtaining internet access.

$2.5 billion will be allocated toward zero emission school buses, and $2.5 billion would also be invested in low emission buses. This would provide school districts nationwide with electric school buses. An additional $7.5 billion would be invested for creating more electric vehicle chargers across the country as well.

Ports, waterways, and airports would also be repaired and improved by the bill, with $17 billion and $25 billion invested in maintaining ports and airports, respectively. The funds will also work to reduce carbon emissions around ports and airports.

The bill will build new power lines to upgrade the country’s electricity grid, investing $73 billion in promoting access to electricity.

Finally, clean water access will be improved with $55 billion invested in water infrastructure to replace lead pipes in rural towns, disadvantaged communities, and Tribal Nations.

This measure will be the largest federal infrastructure investment in over a decade.

Sources: New York Times 8/10/21; CNN 8/5/21; The White House 7/28/21


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