How Helms Censors Reproductive Healthcare

Anne Keyworth, Resident Blogger (’16, North Carolina Central University)

The Helms Amendment, enacted in 1973, placed restrictions on reproductive health organizations that receive US funding. It is supposed to permit reproductive health organizations to assist women with post-abortion care and abortion services in the instances of rape, incest, and risk of serious harm to the health of the woman. However, it has instead been interpreted by many US aid agencies as a complete ban on abortion services or equipment, and the results of this have been devastating.

Part of what the law has been interpreted to mean is that such agencies and their employees cannot engage in conversations about abortion, despite whether the procedure is legal in the given country or not. This effectively means that such agencies must censor the language they use and the conversations they may engage in with the women and families they serve. Furthermore, it has been so pervasive that it has even been attached as a condition to funding given to foreign country’s governments. For example, the United States granted Afghanistan $4.2 million for building democracy, under the condition that it agrees to the restrictions of the Helms Amendment.

One of the things I learned in my Constitutional Law class was that conditional grants being offered to states cannot be coercive, meaning that the consequences of not meeting the condition cannot be overly harsh and leave the state with no choice in the matter. Clearly, the same standard has not been applied to matters pertaining to international aid. Instead, the United States has continued to impose its political ideologies (specifically, the 1973 ideologies of the Senator who introduced the amendment, Jessie Helms – a man known for his anti-woman and homophobic beliefs) on those who accept US aid, and consequently on the women who approach such agencies when they most need unbiased, uncensored medical information; not American politics.

Censorship of maternal health and rights discussions pertaining to abortion are already pervasive in many countries, and this disproportionately impacts low income women and families in need of safe and legal reproductive health services. But many countries are seeking to expand their approach to maternal healthcare and are being stifled by the demands of the Helms Amendment. Nepal, for example, began implementing a plan to more comprehensively approach abortion care in 2004, and abortion services were made available in every district within the next five years. This was a much less restrictive approach to abortion that it had previously held. However, navigating the unclear requirements of the Helms Amendment led to restrictions on which agencies could fully implement the new law of Nepal.

The political restrictions the US is placing on countries who accept its aid act as a pervasive form of censorship, specifically related to abortion. Until this stops, abortion services will continue to be scattered and rare, and women in need of such services face unnecessary political obstacles in obtaining the medical care of their choice. Our politics has no business interfering with women’s medical decisions.

WHPA Revives Debate over Abortion Restrictions at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing

Rhiannon DiClemente, Guest Blogger (’16, Temple University Beasley School of Law)

Early Thursday morning on July 15, 2014, the Senate halls were bustling with interns, staff members, and local advocates eager to witness the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on S. 1696, also known as the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 (WHPA). Attendees, who managed to overflow the room, patiently awaited testimony provided by members of Congress, doctors, and activists, both for and against the bill. In light of the decisions in Hobby Lobby and McCullen, it was reassuring to see politicians taking a long over-due stand to protect a woman’s constitutional right to determine whether and when to bear a child or end a pregnancy.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), addresses medically unnecessary state restrictions claimed to “protect” women’s health. It requires that state legislators prove state laws restricting abortion are in fact medically necessary, rather than politically or ideologically motivated. It also requires that states regulate abortion providers in exactly the same way they do other clinics and doctors who provide comparable services. The bill has its shortcomings, such as failing to address clinic violence, insurance prohibitions, and parental consent laws, as a March 2014 blog post highlights. However, it is an important step forward in combatting laws that have a disparate impact on low-income women, immigrant women, LGBT persons, and women of color.

Why is this bill important? As a LSRJ chapter leader at Temple University School of Law and a summer legal intern at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), I know that despite the fact that we have Roe , the web of state restrictions has decimated abortion access. In states like Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, the situation is dire. In 2012, the Mississippi legislature passed HB 1390, mandating that any physician performing abortions in the state have admitting privileges at an area hospital (an unnecessary practice). During the Senate committee hearing, Dr. Willie Parker, a board-certified OB/GYN and the last physician providing abortion care in Mississippi, testified that despite 13 attempts to gain admitting privileges at regional hospitals, not one of his requests has been granted. This is just one example of how seemingly ‘safety-oriented’ legislation is really aimed to shut down clinics and restrict abortion access.

At the hearing, Rep. Janet Chu (D-CA27) testified that between 2011 and 2013, states passed over 200 restrictions blocking access to abortion services. This translates to more restrictions on women’s health care in three years than in the entire preceding decade. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) highlighted that these restrictions have forced women to travel greater distances and endure longer wait times to obtain an abortion. “The effect of these laws is that a woman’s constitutional right now depends on her zip code,” stated Rep. Chu, “We need laws that put women’s health and safety first – not politics.”

By speaking out against arbitrary restrictions that do not reflect medical best practice standards, supporters of S. 1696 have declared their respect for the constitutional right to access abortion services and trust in a woman’s ability to make the best choices for her own health and life.

Full testimony can be found here.

New Study Debunks Six of the Worst “Myths” About Sex-Selective Abortion

Gavin Barney, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

The documentary It’s a Girl was released in 2012 to immediate acclaim in traditionally progressive and pro-choice corners – the Amnesty International Film Festival made it an official selection and Ms. Magazine called the movie “unflinching” in its positive review. Fully titled It’s a Girl: the Three Deadliest Words in the World, the film describes the problem of son preference in India and China, telling how, tragically, as many girls are “eliminated” yearly in those countries as are born in the United States. However, the documentary was not quite what it appeared: a 2013 article in Slate uncovered that It’s a Girl was produced with strong, but well hidden, ties to an organization called Harvest Media Ministry that makes anti-choice videos. The film also has a subtle, but real anti-abortion message. The really troubling thing about It’s a Girl is not necessarily who produced it however – anti’s are not automatically incapable of producing material of worth. Rather, the problem is how films like this fit into the narrative of another issue here in the United States: the recent onslaught of “sex-selective abortion” ban legislation that impose criminal penalties on the performance of an abortion sought because of the sex of the fetus.

CaptureLast week I attended a talk coinciding with the release of a new report on the issue of sex-selective abortion bans called “Replacing Myths with Facts.” Produced by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), and the University of Chicago, the study identifies six common and damaging myths and misconceptions that have allowed sex-selective abortion bans to worm their way into so many legislative sessions. Chief amongst these myths is that male-biased sex ratios “are proof that sex-selective abortions are occurring,” (spoiler: there are other major factors at play) and that the “primary motivation behind laws banning sex-selective abortion in the United States is to prevent gender-based discrimination” (another spoiler: it’s really about restricting access to abortions in general).

The speakers began their presentation by introducing the room to It’s a Girl. It was suggested at the talk, and I am inclined to agree, that one of the reasons both that It’s a Girl has been a hit among pro-choice people and that anti-choice organizations and politicians have so aggressively pushed sex-selective abortion bans is that the issue of sex selection is particularly uncomfortable for pro-choice folks. The notion that people would be actively choosing boy babies over girl babies, and acting on those choices, is disturbing to any person with even the broadest feminist beliefs. Additionally, recent technological innovations that potentially open the door to allowing people to use artificial reproductive technologies to choose traits, including sex, for so-called “designer babies” make questions of sex preference more current and significant. In light of these realities, it is not terribly surprising that many normally pro-choice people may be willing to start carving out exceptions to abortion access – and it is equally unsurprising that racial stereotypes and misconceptions have played a major role.

This, of course, is where “Replacing Myths with Facts” comes in. In its introduction, “Replacing Myths” explains how proponents of sex-selective abortion bans focus on “the problem of ‘missing women’ in China and India in particular” to justify their policies. They rely on and reinforce stereotypes that people in the Asian and Pacific Island community bring these presences and practices to the US. This is myth #5 that “Replacing Myths” debunks: the most recent studies have found that foreign born Chinese, Indians, and Koreans actually “have more girls overall than white Americans.” This is a particularly important myth to debunk because the way the laws are designed – putting the onus on the health care provider to deny abortions based on son preference with the threat of criminal sanctions –opens the door to doctors generally denying API women abortions out of stereotype fueled fear.

Sex-selective abortion bans have become an extremely prevalent tactic to limit abortion access, and the fact that these policies are based heavily on racist stereotypes and spread by playing on people’s racial misconceptions make this an issue of particular import to supporters of reproductive justice. I encourage you to read “Replacing Myths with Facts” and to inoculate yourself as best you can against the lies around sex-selective abortion.

The Changing Abortion Conversation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Sasha Young, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, Northwestern School of Law)

I recently saw a film that caught me by surprise, “La Espera” (released in the States as images“Expecting”) by Chilean filmmaker Francisca Fuenzalida. The film is devoted to one night, when Natalia and Rodrigo, a teenage couple from Santiago, self-induce an abortion with Misoprostol. The film was released in 2011 to critical praise for great filmmaking and the courage to tackle the subject of abortion in a country with one of the strictest abortion bans in the world.

Earlier this year I traveled to Chile, the skinny country that lines the western coast of South America, with a bit of angst over what I would find. I wondered what a country that in the last 50 years had a socialist president, a revolution, and a dictator [who, despite his human rights violations, brought incredible economic development and one of the most oppressive abortion laws in the world] would actually look like. I’d heard stories from friends about their own botched Misoprostol abortions, and I’d read about little Belén, the 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother’s partner and then praised by the former president for deciding to continue her pregnancy. What I found was a country where, although it’s not uncommon to see hormonal teens passionately rolling around the manicured lawns of el Cerro Santa Lucía or see street art cursing the bourgeoisie, the conversation about abortion is hard to find.

I worked in an abortion clinic in Bogotá, lived beside an abortion clinic in Mexico City, and marched to stop restrictions on reproductive rights in Atlanta. I’m from a little island where abortion is still illegal, but even there in Aruba, the conversation of abortion happens. So I was really excited a few weeks ago to hear a debate happening around new Chilean president Michelle Bachelet’s plans to introduce therapeutic abortion exceptions to Chile’s abortion law later this year. The controversial president is a physician by profession, a single mother of three children, and possibly made of steel considering the political risk she’s taking with this new initiative. Abortion is a controversial topic, but in a region with one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, where bad abortions are the leading killer of young women, and where criminal penalties for abortion disproportionately affect poor women, we have to at least have a conversation about what reproductive justice in our region looks like.  The winds are changing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and having an open and honest conversation is the first step to achieving equal access to tools that help us decide when, how, why, and if we want to parent.

 

#KeepItConfidential

Ruth Dawson, Resident Blogger (’12, Emory University School of Law)

Under a landmark California bill passed last year, individuals covered under another person’s insurance policy will soon be able to seek sensitive services such as birth control, STD tests, and mental health services, without worrying about the disclosure of these services to the policyholder. This person is usually a parent or spouse, a fact which often prevents people from using their insurance to get the medical care they need. Going into effect January 1, 2014, the Confidential Health Information Act (SB 138) closes a loophole in California law, where insurance plans unintentionally violate patients’ confidentiality by sending information about the services received home to the policyholder.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and is thus a particularly important time to be focusing on confidentiality of medical and mental health services. In addition to the common problem of young people heading to a free clinic for routine reproductive care and claiming no insurance (as many of my friends did instead of admitting to their parents that they needed care), this law will have a profound effect on survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender-based violence. Maintaining confidentiality is crucial for survivors of assault to feel comfortable and empowered to access the physical and psychological services they need, without fear of stigma, forced disclosure, or cruel yet common reactions, such as victim-blaming.

For this new law to have the wide-reaching impact advocates desire, we must create a smooth system for patients to request confidentiality, educate patients across the state that they have the option to request confidentiality, and train providers in how to effectively implement this system in service provision. The smoother the implementation of this bill, the more likely the new law will be used as a model for patient confidentiality of sensitive services around the nation.  I’m proud that California is making real strides to #keepitconfidential for all patients.

Lady Parts

Mangala Kanayson, Resident Blogger (’15, Emory University School of Law)

Dear LSRJ Blog Reader,

Lady Parts (LP) is a student-run production that highlights the issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and identity, as pertaining to women. Through a series of monologues, LP aims to educate, enlighten, and empower both women and the surrounding community in order to accept, advocate, and celebrate.

In 2013,  Emory Law Students for Reproductive Justice, in partnership with the corresponding student organizations at the Public Health and Medical Schools, brought Eve Ensler’s play “The Vagina Monologues” to the Emory Graduate community for the first time. This year the show has progressed toward new goals. In the interest of creating a more diverse and inclusive show this year’s production will be featuring monologues written by Emory students about the modern day triumphs and hardships of being a woman. We are particularly interested in exploring the intersectionality of other aspects of identity (age, race, orientation, class) with womanhood and how our experiences are both shared and different.

If you’re in the Atlanta area and interested in acting or would like to learn more about the production, please click here and get involved. The show is on March 20, 2014 at 7pm in Tull Auditorium. We look forward to seeing you in March! If you’d like to support us but are unable to do so in person, please consider donating to our beneficiary SPARK on behalf of LadyParts here.

XOXO, Emory LSRJ

As a LSRJ alum, I care about women winning

Kate Baxter-Kauf, Guest Blogger, (’11, University of Minnesota Law School)

Like most alumni members of the LSRJ, I was active during law school in my chapter, serving as the co-treasurer for two law school years and going to meetings all three, and helping to organize fund raisers, educational events, and visiting speakers (though perhaps not as active as two of our co-presidents during my law school, both of whom LSRJ has profiled!). Also like most alumni members of the LSRJ, I’m committed to fostering legal expertise and support for the realization of reproductive justice. During law school, my involvement with LSRJ made the method through which I supported these goals clear —my LSRJ chapter had a full and vibrant schedule of ways to learn and get involved.

But since graduating from law school, I’ve been less sure how to support reproductive justice in more tangible ways than being informed and following smart activists on Twitter. I work in private practice; my job doesn’t involve non-profit or advocacy work on a day to day basis. There does not seem to be much of a need for pro bono direct legal services for those seeking abortions in my area—I looked, for example, as to whether minors requiring a judicial bypass proceeding needed counsel in Minnesota, where I live, but my research and discussion with providers indicated that guardians at litem and not lawyers were the ordinary volunteers. Every pro-choice organization needs donations and holds events, and I’ve found a few I especially like, especially those that directly fund abortions for people who can’t afford them.

Over the past year I have found a different opportunity to participate in the movement through an organization called womenwinning. The organization recruits, trains, and helps pro-choice women candidates get elected and the events it puts on directly support this mission—I went to a house party that discussed essential traits of successful global leaders in the context of women in the workplace with Dr. Annmarie Neal that was fantastic, and last year’s annual luncheon with former Senator Olympia Snowe was both inspiring and informative about the ongoing need for pro-choice women officials across the ideological spectrum. Next week, I’ll be attending my second annual Wine, Chocolate & Choice event, which is specifically designed to aid young pro-choice women like myself in fostering the next generation of reproductive rights advocates.

If you’re in Minneapolis next week and a supporter of LSRJ, you should join me. If you’re not, I highly encourage you—in addition to supporting LSRJ, supporting and funding direct reproductive rights services, and other events—to seek out these types of organizations. Finding a way to elect pro-choice women candidates to all levels of public office is a concrete step in the fight for reproductive rights and justice.

Note from the LSRJ national office – as a 501(c)(3) organization, we do not support or oppose any candidate running for public office. Any LSRJ alum or member affiliating with WomenWinning is doing so as a private individual.

Anniversary Reminds Us Not To Turn Back

S J Chapman, Resident Blogger, (’12, Northwestern University Law School)

To mark the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Center for Reproductive Rights is producing a series of PSAs urging Americans to stand up for reproductive rights.

The latest features Tony and Grammy Award winner Dee Dee Bridgewater, sharing the harrowing account of her 1968 pre-Roe abortion.  I was struck by the candor and poignancy of Dee Dee’s story, which epitomized the lack of dignity that accompanies government restrictions on abortion: “I remember being very humiliated… to the point that today I haven’t thought about this for years; thinking about it makes me want to cry.”

The PSA encourages people to take a stand against governmental intrusion into reproductive decisions.  As Dee Dee asserts, “I don’t think its right that our politicians can choose for women what their reproductive choices are … you are the one who should decide what you will do with your body.”

I urge everyone to take a few minutes to watch Dee Dee’s video.

Once you’ve seen Dee Dee’s story, you might also want to see the first PSA in the series by reproductive rights advocate Mark Ruffalo, who shares the story of his mother’s pre-Roe abortion experience.  It shocked him to learn that to get an abortion, women had to “search out doctors at night, miles and miles and miles away from their home, in a closed-down doctors office or motel room.”  He concluded by saying “I can’t stand aside with two beautiful young girls of my own and accept that we are going to return to those days.”

Let’s follow Dee Dee and Mark’s examples by working together to ensure our reproductive choices are ours, not the government’s.

Republicans State of Abortion Address

Christine Poquiz, Resident Blogger (’12, University of California, Davis School of Law)

After celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” and on the day of President Obama’s State of the Union address focusing on the economy and poverty, what do House Republicans spend their valuable time on? You got it–abortion. Like voting to repeal Obama care for the 40umpteenth time, Republicans dogged focus on anti-abortion measures, that won’t reach the Senate, are infuriating to say the least. Republicans are once again obsessed with denying women the ability to make their own personal reproductive health decisions. If the all-male HR7 hearing is any indication, instead of waging a war on poverty, Republicans are waging a war against poor women who aren’t able to pay for abortion care.

HR7 deemed the “No Taxpayer for Abortion Act” is an extreme abortion ban that withholds coverage from virtually all women in the U.S. There are current laws that ban women who use Medicaid as their insurance, to cover their abortion care. This law would extend this coverage ban to both public and private insurance companies. There was even an original “rape audit” provision that would require women to prove to the IRS their rape or incest circumstance in order to get insurance coverage for their abortion. Conservatives took this portion out of the bill to make it seem more palatable, believing that the other provisions of the bill are that much more reasonable.

There was one highlight of the hearing, and one of the few moments I was not yelling at my computer screen, when Democrats stepped up and used this opportunity to talk about real issues our country is facing, like unemployment and the job market, instead of this anti-women absurdity. The optics of democrats lining up and repeatedly insert their statement into the record “in support of extending unemployment insurance for 1.6 million Americans instead of this radical Republican assault on women’s health care rights,” was right out of the conservative play book.

After the Republican controlled House passed the measure 227-188, the GOP undoubtedly wanted to show that they do support women and chose Rep. Cathy McMorris to give the party’s rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union address. McMorris brought up abortion (shock!), an issue that didn’t come up in Obama’s address. McMorris talked about her own personal circumstances, how she and her husband have a son with Down syndrome who has been able to thrive, and therefore abortion should not be a viable option for other women. It is wonderful that McMorris’ son is doing so well and I’m sure their family has their share of struggles. I hope nothing but the best for her family, but not every woman will have the same experiences and resources, it is simply not a reason to make pregnancy decisions for others and their families.

However we feel about abortion, politicians shouldn’t be allowed to deny a woman’s insurance coverage for it just because she’s struggling to get by. When it comes to the most important decisions in life, such as whether to become a parent, it is vital that a woman is able to consider all her options–including an abortion–even if she is poor. Instead of sweeping bans, it’s time for Congress to lift the restrictions on abortion coverage so women can make decisions based on what’s best for their circumstances.

We must improve access to all reproductive health care

Melissa Torres-Montoya, Resident Blogger (’11, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

Last year, as a LSRJ fellow, I had the incredible experience of working on federal policy work in Washington, DC, but as you can imagine, it was also an incredibly busy experience because, essential aspects of women’s health care and more broadly reproductive justice were under constant attack.  During my time as a fellow, I became particularly familiar with policies like the Hyde Amendment, a provision that has been passed every year since 1976 and unjustly restricts access to abortion services to women who get their health coverage through Medicaid.  This disproportionately affects  women of color and women with lower incomes.  Yes, Roe v. Wade says abortion is legal, but federal and state policies continue to narrow abortion access and the first to feel these continued attacks are the most vulnerable – communities of color and low income women.

This year, I started a new job where I’m working to end the HIV epidemic and help create an AIDS free generation.  As with many health justice issues, communities of color experience huge disparities in HIV infection rates.   Black women experienced 64% of the new HIV infections in 2010.  Latinas experience higher rates of human papilloma virus (HPV) and the death rate among Latins from cervical cancer is double that of white women.  Moreover, since Latinas experience disproportionate rates of HIV infection and HIV positive women are 4-5 times more susceptible to cervical cancer, the rates of HIV infection among Latinas likely contributes to the much higher death rate among Latinas from cervical cancer.

As I delve into HIV/AIDS advocacy work and reflect on my experience as an LSRJ Fellow and the anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, I am re-remembering that attaining reproductive justice for women of color not only relies on increasing access to abortion care but also improving access to all reproductive health care.