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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4/2014 - Senate To Vote on Equal Pay Legislation

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that the Senate will vote on equal pay legislation as soon as next week. The vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84) is expected to be on Equal Pay Day - the day up to which a woman must work in the current year to earn the what men made during the previous year. This year, Equal Pay Day is Tuesday, April 8.

Kerri Sleeman, an AAUW member from Hancock, Michigan, testified in support of the law at a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) hearing on Tuesday. Sleeman worked as a design supervisor for an engineering company in Michigan for 5 years. "After being told by my employer that I couldn't negotiate my starting salary, I learned after my company went bankrupt that men I had supervised were making much more than I was," Sleeman said. "When I asked my former supervisor why I had been paid less, he said it was likely because those men were the sole earners for their wives and children. I was considered less worthy just because I was a woman."

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

"Women earn 23 cents less for every dollar a man earns," said Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate. "Yet, women don't get a 23 percent discount on their student loans. They don't get 23 percent off their first mortgage or a discount on their utility bill, just because they earn less than men. In fact, women often pay more for many of the same goods and services. Women pay more in medical costs than men: an estimated $10,000 over a lifetime. Women are often responsible for child care - an average working mom pays more for child care than tuition."

The Paycheck Fairness Act would close loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to require employers to demonstrate that any pay differences between men and women doing the same work are based on legitimate business reasons, and not based on sex. The Act would also end pay secrecy by prohibiting retaliation against employees who share salary information.

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

4/3/2014 - Supreme Court Strikes Down Aggregate Campaign Contribution Caps

In a divided decision, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down campaign contribution caps, paving the way for big-money donors to contribute unlimited amounts, in the aggregate, to federal candidates and political committees.

The decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission involved only how much money an individual could contribute in the aggregate during a two-year election cycle. It did not address so-called "base limits," or the maximum amount an individual can contribute to any one candidate or committee. Those limits remain, but now the "aggregate limits" - the amount an individual donor can give in total during the election cycle - are gone. Those limits had been $48,600 for all candidates, combined, during the two-year period, and $74,600 to political parties and committees, combined. A majority of the Court found that those limits violated the First Amendment.

Justice Breyer wrote in the dissent, joined by Justice Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, that the Court's decision, "eviscerates our Nation's campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve."

In striking down the aggregate contribution caps, the Court, relying on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, found that seeking to use money - through campaign contributions - in order to gain influence and access to candidates and elected officials, is not "corruption" but is a part of free speech that is "central to our democracy."

The dissent, however, found that Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the plurality of the Court, defined "corruption" too narrowly. "In reality," Justice Breyer noted, "as the history of campaign finance reform shows and as our earlier cases on the subject have recognized, the anticorruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest than the plurality acknowledges. It is an interest in maintaining the integrity of our public governmental institutions. And it is an interest rooted in the Constitution and in the First Amendment itself."

In short, as Justice Breyer pointed out: "Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard."

4/2/2014 - Adjunct Faculty Demand Fair Pay and Benefits

Prompted by a homeless adjunct professor's one-woman protest outside the New York State Department of Education in Albany, adjunct professors across the nation took to Twitter over the weekend to call attention to the low-wages and exploitation of adjuncts working in higher education.

Mary-Faith Cerasoli went to Albany during Spring Break to protest working conditions for adjunct college professors. Cerasoli is an adjunct at Mercy College in New York where she teaches a full courseload, but makes only $22,000 per year before taxes. Ineligible for public assistance, Cerasoli relies on friends for shelter but is sometimes forced to live out of her car - a gift from a used-car dealer in Westchester, NY. Cerasoli has no office, no health benefits, and a sizeable debt-load thanks to unpaid student loans and medical bills. "They call us professors, but they're paying us at poverty levels," she said. "I just want to make a living from a skill I've spent 30 years developing."

Cerasoli is not alone. Adjunct professors - the majority of whom are women - are contract employees usually paid per course taught, and the pay is low. The average adjunct is paid less than $3,000 for a typical three-credit course, but one study found that adjuncts at several colleges reported earning less than $1,000. The vast majority of adjuncts do not receive health insurance, retirement benefits, or sick leave, and many must cobble together a living, often by traveling miles to teach at multiple campuses. In terms of annual compensation, then, adjuncts earn between $18,000 and $30,000, without any benefits, for the equivalent of full-time work, compared to "tenure-track" professors who earn between $68,000 to $116,000 plus benefits.

Some adjuncts have joined labor unions at their institutions in order to organize for better pay and working conditions, but the average adjunct professor is still a source of cheap labor for many colleges. And the use of adjuncts is more widespread than ever. Adjunct professors now make up approximately half of all college faculty.

"I had this idea that I could get a job so that I could have a good income to support my son, and it didn't work out that way," explained Nicole Beth Wallenbrock, an adjunct professor featured on PBS NewsHour. "I'm a precarious worker. I have no job security."

4/2/2014 - West Virginia Governor Vetoes 20-Week Abortion Ban

In a victory for women's health, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill last week that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, calling the measure unconstitutional and a undue restriction on the physician-patient relationship.

"I have vetoed HB 4588 because I am advised, by not only attorneys from the legislature, but through my own legal team that this bill is unconstitutional," Tomblin wrote in a statement.

"The bill is also problematic because it unduly restricts the physician-patient relationship," he added. "All patients, particularly expectant mothers, require the best, most unfettered medical judgment and advice from their physicians regarding treatment options. The medical community has made it clear to me that the criminal penalties this bill imposes will impede that advice, and those options, to the detriment of the health and safety of expectant mothers."

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the West Virginia State Medical Association, and the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at West Virginia University lobbied and testified against the proposed ban.

If the bill had become law, anyone who performed an abortion after 20 weeks could be fined up to $5,000 and spend 1 to 5 years in jail. It had previously passed the West Virginia Senate 25-9 and the House 85-15.

Dozens of similar restrictive bills are moving through state legislatures across the United States.

4/1/2014 - Arizona Restrictions on Medication Abortions Take Effect Today

A federal district judge has refused to temporarily block enforcement of Arizona's restrictions on medication abortion, meaning that as of today, women in Arizona will no longer be able to access non-surgical, medication abortion beyond seven weeks, and doctors will be forced to administer that medication according to an outdated protocol.

The decision, by US District Court Judge David Bury, is not the final ruling on the issue. The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the medication abortion restrictions remains ongoing. Judge Bury's decision, however, does mean that the restrictions will go into effect pending the final outcome of the case.

Planned Parenthood and the Tucson Women's Center, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, challenged the Arizona restrictions, which were passed in 2012. The restrictions require doctors to follow a protocol approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2000. The problem is that the FDA protocol on the use, dosage, and administration of mifepristone - the medication at issue - no longer represents the predominate medical standard of care. Instead, doctors have developed a new standard - endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - that calls for a significantly lower dosage of mifepristone, one that can be safely administered beyond seven weeks.

"With today's disappointing ruling, Arizona women's constitutional rights and access to safe, high-quality reproductive health care have been diminished, simply by virtue of where they live," said David Brown, staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights. "This law serves no purpose other than to prevent Arizona women from using a safe alternative to surgical abortion and force their doctors to follow an outdated, riskier, and less effective method. This is what happens when politicians, not doctors, practice medicine."

Several states have enacted restrictions on medication abortion, and court decisions on their legality have been mixed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld Texas's medication restrictions, but restrictions in North Dakota and Oklahoma have been found unconstitutional and overturned. The US Supreme Court has so far stayed out the the debate, refusing to hear an appeal of the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision this term.

4/1/2014 - More than 7 Million People Enrolled in Healthcare Through Affordable Care Act

More than 7 million people have enrolled in private health insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare.

The White House met its original goal of enrolling 7 million people by March 31 through new federal and state marketplaces created by the landmark legislation. Despite false advertising about the ACA, numerous Republican attempts to dismantle the law, and problems with the rollout of the site, millions of Americans will now access quality, affordable health insurance.

In addition, the White House will offer some relief to those individuals who began the process of enrolling online, but could not finish by the March 31 deadline. In these cases, the deadline will be temporarily extended. In order to qualify for this extension, individuals must indicate on that they attempted to enroll before March 31. Special enrollment periods will also continue to be available to accommodate families with new babies or to enroll people who become unemployed and lose their health insurance.

3/28/2014 - Federal Court Upholds Texas Law Restricting Abortion Access

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week upheld a provision of a Texas law that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The requirement is part of HB 2, which passed last summer and has already led to the closure of several Texas abortion clinics since it went into effect. The appeals court decision means that even more clinics are expected to close in the state.

"The legislators lied when they said this law wouldn't close clinics," explained Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman's Health, to RH Reality Check. "This law has closed clinics. This law has denied women access to safe care. This law is now and will in the future do great damage to the health-care infrastructure in the State of Texas."

Texas's anti-abortion law passed last summer in a special legislative session called by Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (D) successfully led a filibuster of the bill for 12 hours. In addition to the admitting privileges requirement, the law also bans abortion at 20 weeks, restricts medication abortion, and mandates that facilities where abortion is performed meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of several clinics and their patients, challenging the admitting privileges requirement as well as the law's restrictions on medication abortion. In October, federal district judge Lee Yeakel ruled that the admitting privileges requirement was unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit almost immediately stayed Judge Yeakel's order, allowing the law to go into effect. In its decision yesterday, the Fifth Circuit also upheld the medication abortion restrictions.

3/24/2014 - FMF Will Deliver Thousands of Petitions to the Supreme Court Tomorrow in Support of the ACA Birth Control Benefit!

The Feminist Majority Foundation will deliver thousands of petitions to the US Supreme Court tomorrow in support of the Affordable Care Act birth control benefit, sending a clear signal to the Court that women, not bosses, should make personal decisions about women's healthcare.

"After a trip to the ER at 19 years old, I was put on birth control to treat ovarian cysts," said Kristy Birchard, a Feminist Majority Foundation National Campus Organizer. "I can't imagine my boss telling me that his or her beliefs should trump my health."

"Women should not have to get their bosses' permission to access birth control. Whether women are using birth control to prevent pregnancy, using it to treat serious medical conditions, like endometriosis or ovarian cysts, or both, is none of their bosses' business," said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal.

On Tuesday, the Court will hear oral arguments from Hobby Lobby, a national for-profit arts and crafts chain, and Conestoga Wood, a for-profit cabinet manufacturer, who want to prevent their female employees from accessing birth control through their health insurance plans. The Feminist Majority Foundation, along with a coalition of several organizations, will be at the Court to give voice to the majority of Americans who support women's health and the birth control benefit.

"Bosses have no right to be in your bedroom and no right to determine your healthcare plan. This is a blatant, dangerous attempt to discriminate against women," continued Smeal. "Denying access to birth control compromises women's health. Decisions about birth control should be made by women in consultation with their doctors. Women should not be held hostage to the beliefs of their bosses."

"Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood think they can use religion to discriminate against women, arguing that the birth control benefit violates the companies' religious liberty. But this case isn't about protecting religious liberty. Simply put, profit-making corporations are not people with religious beliefs, and as the people of Arizona showed us just recently when Governor Jan Brewer vetoed anti-LGBT legislation cloaked in the rhetoric of religious liberty, we must be vigilant about the use of religion as a license to discriminate. It not only flies in the face of American values, but in this case, it literally threatens women's health and lives," said Smeal.

Birth control is basic health care for women. Nearly all American women who have ever had sexual intercourse have used birth control, and as many as 88% have used birth control pills, injectables, the contraceptive patch, or IUDs at some point in their lives. Birth control is also essential for the near 15% of women who use the pill to treat painful conditions such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, or severe cramps, and studies have shown that the pill reduces the incidence of ovarian and endometrial cancers.

Sign the petition here in advance of our delivery! We will continue to collect signatures until the decision.

3/20/2014 - New Bill Aims To Expand Health Care Access for Immigrant Women and Families

The Health Equity and Access Under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act of 2014, introduced last week, would significantly improve the ability of immigrant women and families to access affordable health care.

The act will eliminate discriminatory barriers to coverage, including the current 5-year ban on enrollment after an immigrant has established lawful status. It will immediately restore full Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage to immigrants who are authorized to live and work in the US and are otherwise eligible for coverage. The HEAL Act will also remove the exclusion of DREAMers who have been granted deferred action through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from obtaining insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"This legislation would correct the harmful restrictions that have been placed on legal immigrants' ability to access affordable health insurance coverage," said Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), who introduced the bill. "Limiting access to healthcare has a profound negative impact on families, communities and the nation as a whole and it must be corrected. These immigrants are hardworking taxpayers who deserve to be treated fairly under the system they pay into."

Around 200 organizations and associations have signed onto a letter of support for the legislation.

3/20/2014 - Breastfeeding Woman Pushed To Resign Will Not Get Discrimination Trial

A woman who filed charges against her employer for failing to accommodate her and encouraging her to resign when she was breastfeeding cannot continue with her lawsuit, a court ruled on Thursday.

Angela Ames returned to work in 2010 at Nationwide Mutual Insurance in Des Moines after a two-month maternity leave. She needed to breastfeed every three hours, but the company refused to let her use its lactation rooms because she had not completed necessary security paperwork, which she was unaware was a requirement and would take three days to process. A nurse told her she could lactate in a wellness room, but that it might expose the milk to germs.

While she was in pain after being unable to express her milk for several hours, her supervisor told her she would have to work overtime. When she then spoke to her department head, Karla Neel, she told her it was not her responsibility to help her, and she said, "I think it's best that you go home to be with your babies." Neel then handed Ames papers with details of her resignation on them and told her to sign. In addition, several months prior, her supervisors told Ames she may have to cut her maternity leave short and gave the impression that taking extra unpaid leave would be looked at unfavorably.

Ames filed a lawsuit alleging gender and pregnancy discrimination at the state and federal level. A US District Judge dismissed the case in 2012, but the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging that it be reinstated. Against all evidence, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals - a court of all men - ruled that Ames had not provided legal proof that she had been discriminated against, that the company had properly tried to accommodate her needs, and that a reasonable person would not "jump to the conclusion that her only option was to resign," even though Ames was in significant pain and distress at the time.

Despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978's bar on discrimination toward pregnant employees, many American women are forced out of their jobs or denied accommodations that would allow them to continue working once they become pregnant. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would strengthen it, requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers and barring them from denying employment opportunities based on a reasonable accommodation, but it has stalled in Congress since last May.

3/18/2014 - Senate Votes to Reauthorize Child Care Bill

The Senate voted 96-2 last week to pass the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 (CCDBG), a federal grant program that provides child care assistance to families and funding for child care initiatives.

The CCDBG was authored by Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Richard Burr (D-NC), along with Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and reflected feedback from parents, child care providers, and childhood development experts. It aims to improve the health and safety of the 1.5 million children and families who benefit from the federal child care subsidy program, by strengthening regulations for child care providers and facilities such as requiring background checks and inspections [PDF]. It will improve families' access to child care by, among other changes, requiring states to use at least 70 percent of the grant's funding for direct services [PDF]. It will also strengthen the quality of child care by requiring developmentally appropriate training for child care providers, and it will improve the coordination of early care and education.

"CCDBG provides a lifeline so that all children have the care that they need and deserve," said Senator Mikulski. "Updating this vitally important child care program will help support those who care for our children, give parents peace of mind that their children are safe and receiving quality care, and better prepare our children for the future. It will help keep working parents at work while ensuring children have a safe environment that provides them the skills they need to begin to develop their potential and be better prepared for school."

The CCDBG now moves to a vote in the House. If passed, this would be the first time the law has been reauthorized since 1996.

3/18/2014 - Federal Court Strikes Down Arkansas Early Abortion Ban

US District Judge Susan Webber Wright struck down an Arkansas law last week that would have banned abortions at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Webber declared the measure to be unconstitutional, stating that it "impermissibly infringes a woman's Fourteenth Amendment right to elect to terminate a pregnancy before viability."

"This was one of the most extreme laws passed in 2013 by lawmakers dead-set on taking away a women's ability to make the best medical decision for herself and her family," said Talcott Camp, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "We must ensure that this personal medical decision remains where it belongs: not with politicians, but with a woman, her family, and her doctor."

Democratic Governor Mike Beebe vetoed the bill last year, but Republicans controlling the state legislature overrode the veto with a simple majority vote. The Arkansas law would have banned most abortions at or after 12 weeks of pregnancy if a fetal heartbeat could be detected. Judge Webber had previously ordered a temporary injunction of the law, preventing it from being enforced pending a decision on the law's constitutionality. Her ruling last week means that the law can never go into effect, although Judge Webber did let stand the law's mandatory ultrasound requirement.

Several other states are pushing extreme legislation to severely limit access to abortion, including Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. The consequences of laws targeting access to abortion and women's reproductive healthcare are being felt acutely in Texas, where dozens of abortion clinics have been forced to close.