Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Jamie Lynn Spears Generation

By Cristina Page

(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum on the effects of abstinence-only education and the rise of premature parenthood and pregnancy rates among teenagers.)

The Spears family can't be shocked by much these days, not with Britney in every tabloid. Still the recent news seemed to unsettle them. Their 16-year-old daughter Jamie Lynn is pregnant. And while no bad news is unprofitable for the Spears (it is rumored Jamie Lynn, a TV star in her own right, was paid one million dollars to break the news in OK! Magazine), this particular note of fame does appear to have taken the family aback. ("I was in shock. I mean, this is my 16-year-old baby," her mother told OK!) It seems that no matter how well-to-do, (or bizarre) the family, it's always a tragedy to have one's child's adolescence taken away by pregnancy. While Jamie Lynn Spears is not your average teen, her situation is becoming a more common experience for many girls of her generation: premature parenthood.

A Center for Disease Control (CDC) report released this month reveals that in 2006 there was a dramatic rise in teen births among 15 to 19 year olds in the United States bringing to a grinding halt a steady 14-year decline. In fact, Jamie Lynn's situation exemplifies a reversal of many positive trends that began in the 1990s. Specifically there was a steep drop in abortion and unwanted pregnancy rates. During this period even sexual activity among high school students declined significantly. And those teens who were having sex -- as would an average of half of them would before graduating high school - were more likely to use protection.

Now these gains are slowing or reversing. Sadly, these reversals seemed inevitable. After all, since 2000 we have turned away from using every strategy that the previous decade proved effective.

Today's teens are the victims of a one billion dollar social experiment: The national implementation of the abstinence until marriage policy. Like the "Just Say No" to drugs campaigns of the Reagan years, it too has been a colossal failure.

Abstinence-only programs have not only failed to convince kids not to have sex, but have led many not to use contraception. To scare teens away from sexual activity, abstinence-only programs focus on the dangers of sex. If contraception is ever mentioned it is to highlight (and exaggerate) its failure rates. If a girl is told that even if her boyfriend uses a condom she'll get pregnant once every seven times -- as the popular abstinence program "Choosing the Best Way" instructs -- the incentive to use one dissipates.

Those promoting abstinence-only, mainly religious political groups, say parents should have the right to teach children according to their beliefs. What the same groups fail to mention is that the vast majority of parents -- 93 percent according to a 2004 Kaiser Family Foundation poll -- want their teens taught comprehensive sex ed, including accurate information about protection from pregnancy and disease. If there is a prevailing belief among parents it is decidedly anti-abstinence-only education. They're in good company too: All mainstream organizations of health professionals that deal with young people strongly criticize federal support for current abstinence programs. These include the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine. Last month 10 of the top experts in the fields of adolescent sexual and reproductive health advised Congress to completely de-fund abstinence-only programs because they withhold "potentially life-saving information from youth."

The toll of withholding potentially life-saving information is becoming tragically evident. In the states where the abstinence-only approach is more likely to be used disease is up. School districts in the South are five times more likely than in the Northeast to teach only abstinence. Today, the southern states have the highest rate of new HIV/AIDS infections, the highest rate of STDs, as well as the highest rate of teen births. While over the last decade other regions have made major strides in decreasing or stagnating HIV infection rates, according to the CDC the South accounts for 45 percent of all new cases.

Many states are realizing that instilling ignorance about sex and protection in our teens is the real moral violation. Teens need accurate information in order to make important life decisions. That is why, to date, 15 states have refused federal money for abstinence-only funding. Parents in the remaining 35 states must demand that their governors and statehouses reject federal grants for these ineffective and dangerous programs too. It's the only time just saying no might actually work.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for

Friday, November 09, 2007

Activists Rally for a Better Media...Video footage

Following up on Liisa’s recent post on the October 31st Free Press Rally outside the FCC Building in Washington, DC about media consolidation here is a video that features clips and key points made by guest speakers at the rally that I filmed and edited. While the FCC held hearings in the boardroom activists poured their hearts out, raising up their voices against monopolization of media.

First up in this video we have a clip of the Prometheus Radio Project “FCC Cheerleaders.” Dressed in blue and white uniforms with FCC stitched across their chests and armed with pom-poms the cheerleaders pumped the crowd up with a cheer about the FCC, finishing with a tough looking pyramid.
The rally also featured many powerful speakers who all had a say about how “big media” is damaging the diversity within the media.

Kim Gandy (President, National Organization for Women), Carol Jenkins (President, Women’s Media Center) and E. Faye Williams (President, National Congress of Black Women) all talked about the way consolidation affects women in the media, especially how it determines the role of ownership and higher positions held by women.

Wade Henderson (President, Leadership Council on Civil Rights) made the point that this was a civil rights issue because media consolidation goes against the rights of all people, not just people of color and women. Reverend Jesse Jackson (President, PUSH Rainbow Coalition) also spoke at the rally and he mentions that “big media” makes us lose hindsight of what’s really going on around us citing the Jena 6 case as an example.

Also in this video Rosa Clementè (REACHip-Hop) and Reverend James Coleman (President, Missionary Ministers Conference of DC) both spoke about the misrepresentation of people of color by the media.

All of these speakers had something interesting to say about media consolidation whether it was statistics, anecdotes, words of encouragement and outrage against the FCC.

-- Cristal A. Pinnix

The writer is an intern with American Forum and a student at Franklin Pierce University.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Protecting Older Women Against Cervical Cancer

By Susan Scanlan

(Click here to listen to a brief Public Service announcement distributed by American Forum. It is written by Op-Ed author Susan Scanlan and is advising for policy that promotes protection for older women from HPV.)

Much discussion recently has focused on a new vaccine that helps protect girls and young women against cervical cancer. The vaccine wards off the virus – the human papillomavirus, or HPV – that causes the disease. This medical breakthrough, however, does not protect against all cancer-causing HPV types and is only FDA-approved for girls and women aged 9-26. Therefore, it certainly won’t help women aged 65 and older, who account for nearly 20 percent of all new cervical cancer cases in the United States and more than 35 percent of all deaths from the disease.

Another technology -- a DNA test for HPV -- can better protect these women. And now, a proposal before Congress will ensure that older women get access to this test by requiring Medicare to pay for it.

This year, 11,150 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 3,670 women will die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Many more thousands of women will be treated for high-grade pre-cancerous lesions in their cervixes, undergoing procedures that are uncomfortable, anxiety-producing and expensive.

Widespread screening programs using the pap test have produced significant reductions in cervical cancer rates in the U.S. The pap test helps detect cellular changes caused by HPV infection. The pap test alone, however, is 51 percent to 85 percent accurate, depending upon the type of test used.

An HPV test is approved by the FDA for use, in conjunction with a pap test, in women aged 30 and older. HPV testing identifies women who are infected with “high-risk” types of HPV that could potentially lead to cervical cancer. When used with a pap test in women aged 30 and older, an HPV test increases to nearly 100 percent a clinician’s ability to identify women who have the risk factor for cervical cancer and thus require more diligent follow-up as long as the virus persists.

Knowing if a woman aged 65 or older has HPV could help determine if and how often she should continue to be screened. Multiple studies have suggested that incorporating HPV testing into screening programs, per established medical guidelines, improves outcomes while being more cost-effective than those programs without HPV testing.

Ultimately, of course, it is up to clinicians to decide which tests are most appropriate for their patients. But if Medicare covers HPV testing, clinicians will have more options to help prevent older women from developing cervical cancer.

HPV testing is included in cervical cancer screening guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Cancer Society, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the American Medical Women’s Association and the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health. Most private insurance companies and state Medicaid programs already cover HPV testing as part of routine cervical cancer screening for women aged 30 and older.

By requiring Medicare to cover this advanced prevention technique, older women can be assured of access to the same level of healthcare that younger women currently receive. And this can help to better protect all women from cervical cancer.
Scanlan is chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of more than 210 women's organizations across the nation collectively representing over 11 million women.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Keep local media alive!
Activists rally to protest FCC’s corporate tilt

Outside the headquarters of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, D.C., a group of 200 people gathered on Wednesday morning, in an effort to bring public awareness and persuade the FCC to change its direction on media ownership. The rally, sponsored by Free Press, Inc., a non-profit that works to limit media consolidation, was held in conjunction with a public hearing – announced by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin just five days ahead of the hearing date -- on how media consolidation affects local markets. Free Press organizing materials suggested that the short notice was an attempt to lock the public out of the debate.

The Washington Post described the media ownership issue this way:

FCC rules govern how many radio and television stations a company can own in a city and how many radio stations a company can own nationally. They also prevent one company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same city, a rule likely to be lifted during the current review.
The rally featured many prominent speakers, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Melanie Campbell, president of the National Project on Black Civic Participation, NAACP Director Hilary Shelton, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip-Hop Caucus, Rosa Clemente of REACH Hip-Hop and many others. They came together to speak about the possible negative results from the pending changes in FCC rules that would grant giant media corporations a much larger foothold in such local media markets as Washington, D.C.’s. Speakers argued that by indirectly forcing local Washington media outlets to close, the diversity reflected in local coverage – especially representation of people of color and women in local media – would likely be destroyed.

Ownership = content

A common argument in each speech was that whoever owns the media controls the content of media. Women own only 5 percent of television and 6 percent of radio, while minorities own 3 percent of television and less than 8 percent of radio. With their numbers so low in the seats of real power, it’s easy to see why members of these constituencies find perspectives not being presented in corporate-controlled media.

No matter the race or gender of its originator, the same narrative gets retold in media outlets nationwide when only a few hold the reins of media power; new ideas and alternative views do not get heard. This is important because if only one view is presented then the people will not hear the complete story. How well does a person make a decision when he or she does not know all of the facts?

One of the major problems with big corporations controlling nearly all major media is that they are more focused on ratings and money, rather than the story. Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out that the Jena 6 story was originally ignored by the media. The only way the rest of the country learned of it was from local papers, blogging, and YouTube. Only then did the mass media pay attention to the news. As many of the speakers agreed, no social issue can be solved if the message doesn’t get out.

My Hip-Hop isn't your Hip-Hop

While many speakers focused on broadcast news, Rosa Clemente, a Hip-Hop activist spoke about the record industry. Definitely one of the more powerful speakers, Clemente pointed out that Hip-Hop is the culture of oppressed African- and Latin-Americans. However, the Hip-Hop she speaks of is not what is being played on the radio waves. This music does not mention social issues that are affecting the culture it represents, she asserted, partly because of the decisions made by record executives. It is a "fifty-plus-year-old white man" who controls the current Hip-Hop industry and creates the negative images of women and minorities, Clemente asserted. "The same white man," Clemente pointed out, "that in a meeting four weeks later said to us, 'I don’t let my kids listen to that music,' and we said to him, 'but it’s okay for you to be a multi-millionaire in Indiana and let my child listen to it?'"

The organizations taking part in the rally also included the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the United Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Church of Christ, Communication Workers of America, Consumers Union, Prometheus Radio Project, USPIRG, National Congress of Black Women, League of United Latin American Citizens, Women’s Media Center, Alliance for Community Media and Common Cause. The women of Code Pink were there, as well. They sang a parody about Rupert Murdoch and big media to the tune of "There’s No Business Like Show Business."

Interestingly enough, in my Understanding Mass Media class, I just finished a group project about media ownership. Each group had a magazine that they had to research in order to find the corporations that owned it. Presentation after presentation students noticed that it was the same companies who controlled the magazine industry, as well as television and radio. Common names were Disney/ABC, Hearst Corporation, News Corporation, and NBC/GE. It was easy to see how there was a lack of original news because it was all being recycled.

Debating what we already know

While my class has now been convinced that the media is run by a select few, the debate still went on inside the FCC building. The hearing did feature a panel of speakers, most of whom favor local ownership of individual television and radio stations. Each speaker was allowed five minutes to speak. Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of Media Access Project, pointed out that 2,000 radio stations receive broadcasts from Viacom. "What’s the diversity in that?"

Rev. Jesse Jackson stated that although D.C. is a very racially and ethnically diverse city, there is not a single station that is minority-owned. Furthermore, he stated that Don Imus was on the air in more media outlets than the combined numbers of all radio hosts who are minorities and women. Dan Isett, director of corporate and government affairs for the Parents Television Council, gave an example of how big corporations ignore rules and regulations set by the FCC. He said that CBS allowed profanity to be aired during the day, claiming they thought their contract dealt only with live broadcasts, when CBS executives should have known the exact terms of their contract since the network’s lawyer had negotiated it with the FCC.

Although some may not think that we have to worry about our media being completely run by a few major corporations, or even by one or two people, I think that it is something that should be taken seriously. The media is very influential and powerful. As Rev. Lennox Yearwood said, in war the army destroys the media first. If only a few are controlling the media it is very possible that it could affect others’ viewpoints and how the country is run. In order for a democracy to be effective it needs all of the people’s voices to be heard.

--Liisa Rajala

The writer is an intern with American Forum and a student at American University.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No Exceptions: Give Rape Victims Emergency Contraception

By Wendy Wolf and Cathy Raphael

(Click here to listen to a brief Public Service announcement distributed by American Forum. It was written by authors Wendy Wolf and Cathy Raphael on the importance of emergency contraception in emergency rooms.)

A victim of a violent assault arrives in an emergency room. Once the patient’s condition is assessed, it is determined that the patient has, on file with the hospital, an order called an “advance directive” – instructions by the patient on what measures the hospital should take to prolong the patient’s life in the event of a catastrophic illness or injury.

Most Americans agree that all of us deserve the opportunity to make such decisions, within the bounds of the law, without interference from meddling politicians or hospital administrators. Dictates of someone else’s religion or conscience should have no bearing, most agree, on whether or not our wishes are carried out about such end-of-life measures as respirators and resuscitation.

Now imagine that patient, that victim of assault, as a woman who has been raped. By law, the hospital has to honor her wishes on how she would wish to die. But what about how she may wish to live? Should that same hospital be permitted to so meddle in her personal and moral life as to withhold from her the means by which she could prevent the pregnancy that might result from her assault?

Last week, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved new regulations that would allow health care facilities with religious affiliations or moral objections to claim an exemption from an otherwise laudable new rule that requires hospitals to inform rape victims of their right to emergency contraception, and to provide the contraceptive pills to the raped woman if she wants them. The new rule was handed down just as legislators were scheduled to take up a bill that would have required Pennsylvania hospitals and health care facilities essentially to offer the same, but without a so-called “conscience clause.”

With the new rule, state regulators have apparently appeased opponents to the proposed legislation who want to allow facilities to withhold birth control -- even from rape victims -- based on theological or moral grounds. Others seek to muddy the waters by claiming that emergency birth control is something it’s not. (Emergency birth control is nothing more than two birth control pills combined. It does not terminate a pregnancy; it prevents one from happening.)

Regulators have tried to mollify advocates for the rights of rape victims by requiring health care facilities that claim a “conscience” objection from the contraception rule to provide transportation for rape victims to facilities where emergency contraception is dispensed.

This is hardly compassionate care; it is a form of moral condemnation that may, in the end, result in what would have been a preventable pregnancy. Any time wasted by the withholding of appropriate medical care -- in this case, emergency contraception -- further increases the victim’s risk of becoming pregnant by her rapist. In some areas, the only hospital within hundreds of miles may be one that refuses full medical care to rape victims.

We know we’re not alone in our understanding as American citizens that each of us, as individuals, has a right to make important life decisions, within the bounds of the law, according to the dictates of our own consciences. Indeed, we at the Women Donors Network, together with Communications Consortium Media Center, recently conducted research among voters nationwide, surveying attitudes on important life decisions. We found very strong support for the idea that people’s individual decisions deserve respect. An overwhelming majority -- 83 percent -- told researchers that they agreed with this statement: “We need to respect people’s ability to make their own life decisions and not impose our values and views upon them.” Eight in 10 voters -- 81 percent -- agreed that they “may have on position on abortion, another on birth control and still a third on end-of-life decisions” and that “sometimes we must just agree to disagree.”

Our research found that Americans value personal responsibility -- taking charge of one’s life and family and helping to make the world a better place. Voters affirm respect, protection, prevention and planning as values in this discussion. People believe that important life decisions can only be made responsibly if they have access to information and options. Women who come to the emergency room after having been sexually assaulted deserve the information they need to make an important life decision about whether to become a parent or not as a result of being raped. It’s time for Pennsylvania to ensure that the full range of health care is available to all women who come through the emergency room doors for treatment after rape -- without any religious exemptions.

Wolf leads the Women Donors Network project on reproductive and other health issues. Raphael is a Women Donors Network board member who is involved in the project.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Look Who’s Cheering Now

There’s always that one person at work or in class who can tell you everything you could ever want to know about sports. They know how many homeruns San Diego Padres left fielder Barry Bonds hit this season, the number of strikeouts thrown by Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett and that Ricky Henderson holds the career stolen bases record. And by the way, these are your female colleagues. That’s right, we’re taking over. From Wrigley Field to Dodger Stadium, female baseball fans can be found cheering and jeering along with the best of ‘em. Make-up has given way to face paint and jerseys have become fashion statements. It’s not just about how cute Cleveland Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore is -- although it doesn’t hurt -- or how Yankee short stop Derek Jeter looks in his uniform. These are serious fans who know the game and the players. With the 2007 World Series underway, baseball season is at its peak.

Baseball merchandising companies are also recognizing this boom among women. The Boston Red Sox are perhaps the baseball team seeing the greatest surge in female fans. Many now sell “fitted” t-shirts and pink hats as a marketing strategy. Fitted tees I’m cool with. My personal favorite, available to men also, says “I Do It With My Sox On.” The pink hat however, a different story. Pink has long been a synonym for little girl. Despite the fact that I’m an opponent of the color in general, I don’t appreciate it that some merchandisers believe this is the only color for women. I thought the Babe’s Curse was bad, but this pink hat thing really bothers me. For the most part, retailers like the Yawkey Way Store and Chowdaheadz have an awesome selection for females. I guess it’s just a personal preference. I’m sorry that I don’t want the famous Boston Red Sox font in baby soft pink on a white tank top. I want a Jason Varitek jersey, maybe slightly fitted, in navy and red. I’m all for making baseball more female-friendly, but let’s not make it girlish. Wear the team colors proud and don the same gear as the guys with Dice-K painted on their beer bellies.

Aside from my beef with the hat situation, the good news is that the general New England area has seen such a tremendous increase in female sports enthusiasm. Sasha Talcott of The Boston Globe wrote an interesting article about how merchandisers and ballparks plan to continue appealing towards women.
As women flock to games, the Patriots and Red Sox are looking for ways to encourage them to make it a long-term habit. The Red Sox are considering giving them special access to the ballpark on certain nights, including the chance to take batting practice on the field and to listen to sports speakers. The Patriots have focused on making Gillette Stadium friendly to families, which increases its appeal to women, team officials said. is one of the greatest web sites developed in the past several years. Its Cosmopolitan meets ESPN. You can find everything from locker room gossip to stats. Although baseball is my soft spot, the web site offers articles on all sports from basketball to racing. Feel-good pieces in sections like Here Me Roar feature witty commentary mixed with feminism and sex appeal in a series of articles telling what it would be like if women ran the NFL. Maybe one day we will.

It’s good to see another area where females are in the forefront, but ladies do me a favor and leave the pink hats at home.

--Ashlie McEachern

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Girls Say About Self-Esteem

Last Wednesday I attended a presentation called “What Girls Say,” about self esteem, body image and holistic health. Sponsored by Girl Scouts of the USA and Women’s Policy, Inc., it had representatives, researchers, and a panel of girls explain the increasing pressure on young girls today and what the public and legislature can do to alleviate it.

With iPods, TV, movies etc, young women are constantly in touch with the media, so it’s no surprise that the body image issue is on the rise. As the presentation pointed out, media strongly influence girls, consciously and subconsciously, and sexual images on television are being seen by younger and younger viewers. These messages are stressing girls to become more appealing to boys. “Do we want our girls to be Bratz girls?” Rep. Debbie Wasserman asked, alluding to the scantly dressed, stereotypical “girl power” dolls geared towards preteens.

Being 18, I grew up with a generation of girls who were eager to do just that: grow up. I was about 8-years old when Britney Spears came out with her first hit “Baby, Hit Me One More Time.” Playing with dolls was a thing of the past and dancing with mini skirts and a short tee was considered cool. My mother was surprised by how fast I and the other girls my age were growing up, but at the time I thought nothing of it. Now that I’m older, I look back and realize how in some ways I did grow up fast and other girls are too. I and the rest of the audience were shocked when Rep. Wasserman shared a story concerning her 8-year-old daughter. One day she tried on a pair of pants and asked her mother “Do these make me look fat?”

Another problem is that there is a lot of pressure for young girls to succeed in every aspect. “[There is the] pressure to be everything to everyone all the time,” explained Judy Shoenberg, Director of Research and Outreach at the Girl Scout Research Institute. However, girls are more concerned with “fitting in,” finding a group of friends to which they feel that they belong. In the research at the Girl Scout Research Institute, most of the girls who were surveyed admitted that their number one worry was what their peers thought of them. It is because of this fear, that at a time when girls should be able to trust one another, they are often bullied and sometimes respond by bulling others. Kimberlee Salmond, Senior Researcher for Research & Outcomes and the Girl Scout Research Institute, warned the room that “Parents shouldn’t brush [the bullying] off. It truly affects the girls and their parents should talk to them.”

I found girls to be especially brutal in middle school. While many girls were teased because of their weight gain, I was constantly picked apart for my small, skinny bone structure. Even by my friends I was nicknamed “Stick.” Luckily, as I grew older the teasing subsided. For whatever reason, people dropped “Stick” and matured, becoming interested in more serious issues. It was because of the bullying that I had cared so much about my body image. When the bullying subsided I focused less on how I looked because I wasn’t constantly being reminded of it. Due to my experience, I was surprised by the fact that women became more focused on their body image in high school, college, and even later on in life. When I asked Shoenberg and Salmond about this they pointed out that it is different for everyone. While I had my mother to spill out my feelings and frustrations to, other girls do not have someone to confide in. If they don’t build confidence or become comfortable with their body image then it only gets worse. As Salmond explained, “It gets bad in college because [the issue] never goes away.”

Organizations like Girl Scouts help girls feel better about themselves physically and emotionally. When asked whether they had been a member of or involved in Girl Scouts, most of the female attendees raised their hands. Although I was never a member of an organization like Girl Scouts, after seeing so many powerful women who were influenced by it, perhaps more of these kinds of organizations can help girls who need that support while growing up. Someday these girls could be the women that were sitting in that room, all they need is someone to talk to. Looking back I really owe my mom a lot for always being there for me, it was because of her that I’m on my way to leading a successful and less stressful life. As for Rep. Wasserman’s daughter, I’m sure that despite the media and the pressure she too will turn out alright. How can she not with a mother who rushes out to fly back and help with the troop’s scrapbooks?

--Liisa Rajala

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fixing Cocaine Sentencing Laws

By Kara Gotsch

This month the Supreme Court heard a case which touched on a 20-year-old controversy involving justice and crack cocaine. The court will rule early next year in Kimbrough v. United States whether a federal district judge’s more lenient sentencing decision, based on his disagreement with policy that punishes crimes involving crack cocaine more harshly than those involving powder cocaine, is reasonable. The case will help judges determine their ability to sentence below an advisory guideline range. Unfortunately, the outcome will leave in place the excessive mandatory penalties that the Kimbrough judge found unjust.

The case of Derrick Kimbrough stems from his 2005 guilty plea in Virginia for possession with intent to distribute 56 grams of crack cocaine and possession of a firearm. Kimbrough, a Desert Storm veteran with no previous felony convictions, was prosecuted in federal court where penalties involving crack cocaine are harsher than in state systems. As a result, instead of receiving a sentence of about 10 years under Virginia law, he faced a federal sentencing guideline range between 19 and 22 years.

Federal District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, who presided over Kimbrough’s case, called the recommended guideline sentence “ridiculous” and instead sentenced Kimbrough to 15 years, the minimum required by mandatory sentencing laws.

The sentencing range in this case and many other drug-related cases is tied to mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress in the 1980s. Lawmakers intended to impose tough penalties on high-level drug market operators, such as heads of drug organizations and major drug traffickers. However, the small quantities that trigger mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses largely entangle defendants with bit roles in the crack trade. In 2006, more than 60 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants had only low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street-level dealers, couriers or lookouts. State criminal justice systems are well equipped to handle these kinds of cases but are unable to pursue the importers and international traffickers who bring drugs into the country. Stopping drugs from crossing America’s borders is the domain of federal law enforcement, but federal resources are being misdirected.

Had the drugs Kimbrough possessed been solely powder cocaine the amount would not have triggered a mandatory minimum sentence or the lengthy sentencing guideline range. Indeed, it takes 5,000 grams of powder cocaine, 100 times the amount of crack cocaine Kimbrough possessed, to warrant a 10-year mandatory. This dramatic sentencing disparity exists despite the fact that the drugs are pharmacologically identical -- crack is made by cooking powder cocaine with baking soda and water. Both drugs produce equally harmful effects on the body.

Is 10 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense money well spent? The U.S. Justice Department says yes, but many in Congress disagree and a bipartisan group is seeking to change the crack cocaine sentencing law. Since May, three proposals to reform sentencing laws have been introduced in the Senate. Each bill would reduce the quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. One proposal that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine goes the farthest to shift federal law enforcement focus from street level dealers, like Mr. Kimbrough, towards high-level traffickers.

The momentum in Congress is buoyed by a recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission which finds that the penalties for cocaine offenses “overstate the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine” and “sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level-offenders.” The Commission has recommended statutory reforms to Congress and has proposed an amendment to decrease the guideline offense level for crack cocaine offenses. The amendment could reduce crack sentences by 15 months on average and would go into effect November 1 as long as Congress does not act to reject it. However, it would not change the statutory mandatory minimums.

The Supreme Court’s consideration of the magnitude of discretion afforded to federal judges is a step towards creating a more just sentencing system. However regardless of the Court’s action on this case, without Congress altering the harsh mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses, America’s sentencing policy will remain unreasonable.
Gotsch is the director of advocacy at the Washington, DC-based The Sentencing Project.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Profiles in Cowardice

By Joan Suarez

The failed attempt by the U.S. Senate to address immigration reform dealt a huge blow to a country that has waited over two decades for solutions to one of our most pressing national issues.

Of greatest concern is that 53 Senators, including our own Senators, chose to ignore the vast majority of Americans who support a comprehensive solution and instead gave up too soon on the legislative process.

Immigration is an emotionally-charged and complex issue—taking it on requires leadership, courage and putting aside partisan politics. And there was a courageous bipartisan group of Senators that tried to craft legislation to bring both parties to the table. The Senate bill was far from perfect, but legislators knew the bill had to go through the House of Representatives and a Conference Committee, where outstanding issues could still be ironed out.

That is the most alarming aspect of the immigration debate—the politics of fear and hate. Groups at the local level working with immigrant communities are all too familiar with it. They have received hate mail and threats, seen swastikas sprayed on windows, and experienced the backlash that renders whole communities suspect and obscures the path to sound policy-making.

Here in our very own state, we have seen families forced from their homes, children separated from their parents, and local businesses intimidated for serving immigrants. The governor’s recent immigration directives are just another misguided attempt to fill the void that the federal government has left.

Our country is frustrated and angry with federal inaction on this issue, but a patchwork of state laws won’t work and these tactics of fear and the intolerance they spread are summarily rejected by the vast majority of our fellow Americans.

And it is dodging rather than confronting the intimidation of a well-organized minority that led other Senators to put their own interests above the country’s need for reform.

Although the attempt to establish immigration solidly as a wedge issue in the 2006 Election failed, candidates who ran solely on an anti-immigrant platform lost. Voters continue to demand a solution, yet some politicians would rather ignore the issue because this small but loud opposition may disrupt the picture-perfect look of their public events. Sacrificing policy over politics is not new, but when our leaders are afraid to take action, it may be time to re-evaluate who is signing up for the job. After all, any issue we care deeply about will require character, political courage, and determination to act.

The immigration issue will not go away, and those who claimed inaction was a victory stand for a broken system that makes our borders less safe, our economy less stable, and our communities more vulnerable.

This already untenable situation is likely to worsen in the absence of federal action, with state and local governments enacting a patchwork of ineffective laws that cannot solve the problem but leave an indelible mark in our quality of life, where employers, cops, priests, you and I are being called upon to act as immigration agents and turn against our neighbors.

We’ve already seen anti-immigrant legislation in Missouri, and we will see it again in the upcoming session. But Missourians and all Americans deserve better than that. The American people will continue to demand a workable and fair solution that restores the rule of law, secures our borders, strengthens our economy and upholds the values of faith, family and hard work that are the cornerstone of our democracy. Now we need to find leaders that will walk that path with us.
Suarez is the chairperson of Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates. A version of this op-ed previously ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Fighting to Save SCHIP Funding

By Ericka Thoms

President Bush kept his promise and rejected the will of the Congress and the demands of Americans to insure 10 million children. With his veto he saddled states with millions of dollars of debt as they try to keep up their end of the promise to working families and the children who are counting on the grown-ups to get it right.

Few government programs have had the level of success and support that the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) have had. In its five years, the number of uninsured children has dropped by one-third. Unfortunately, the number of children without healthcare coverage has started increasing again as fewer employers are offering insurance benefits. In 2006, 600,000 more children were added to the rolls of the uninsured.

Last week I had the chance to meet a mother whose daughter was enrolled in Healthy Start, Ohio’s SCHIP program. She told me about the amazing progress her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, made because she had access to a wide range of therapies that helped Emily meet the developmental challenges she faced head on. Margaret left her job to care for Emily full time while her husband worked six and a half days a week running his own contracting business. They were doing ok. Then her husband’s business picked up just enough to push them out of range to be eligible for the program. He made $113 more a month than the year before and that was it. For the cost of a weekly trip to the grocery store, Emily lost her coverage.

Margaret tried to keep up Emily’s therapies, but when that first bill came for $3,750 she knew there was no way. And she wondered how she was going to help Emily maintain her progress. With the new expansion passed in Ohio, Emily will once again be able to enroll in Healthy Start and benefit from the care that is going to help her become all that she can be.

In many ways SCHIP is the best example of partnership and innovation we value so greatly as Americans. It has brought Republicans and Democrats together to design legislation for working families. It has brought state and federal government together to create plans responsive to the needs of each state and mindful of the fiscal pressures on the federal budget. It has provided an opportunity for the private and public sector to come together to provide health care for our children.

If this isn’t motivation enough to renew SCHIP, there are 10 million more; the children who will be insured. Multiply that number by the parents who won’t have to worry about how they are going to pay for their child’s vaccinations or setting a broken leg or getting antibiotics. The ripple effect that this kind of program has on families cannot be underestimated. By removing some of the financial pressures facing millions, SCHIP is an investment in the security and strength of working families.

We are often instructed to do for the least among us. But surely these are not the only people who need their communities and their elected representatives to stand by them. Every week we hear about the soaring rise in health care costs and while it seems like little is being done to curb that growth, families who once were able to pay the mortgage, keep up with the utility bills, keep food in the house, and try to make sure they stay healthy are now faced with a balancing act. Can the electric bill wait another month so we can meet the mortgage? Can I skip this year’s doctor’s appointment so we can stretch this month’s food budget? These families may not be the poorest among us, but it is time their needs were valued just as much.

Americans recognize that working families are struggling to provide health care for their children and they want our leaders to do something about it. According to a poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, nine out of 10 voters believe SCHIP should be reauthorized and nearly two thirds believe Congress should provide an additional $35 billion over the next five years. Americans have spoken loud and clear on the issue and it is time that our elected officials follow their lead. If the president won’t, then the Congress must.
Thoms is a policy and planning associate with The Center for Community Solutions.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Blogging the Women Legislators' Lobby Conference

She has arrived

How do you ingratiate yourself with the House leadership if you're a freshman congresswoman with two weeks in your seat? If you're Laura Richardsonson (D-Calif.), you don't. Richardson, who won her seat representing California's diverse 37th district via special election, announced her arrival in the nation's capitol by taking her sweet time deciding how to vote on the S-CHIP legislation for children's health insurance -- not a maneuver to be undertaken by the faint of heart. (Leaders of both parties tend to expect the automatic fealty of newbies in Congress.)

Today at the opening plenary of the national joint conference of the Women Legislators' Lobby (WiLL) and Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), Richardson explained her reticience: the S-CHIP legislation as it emerged from committee was its elimination of insurance for the children of legal immigrants. "Don't be afraid to withhold your vote," she told a roomful of state legislators. By remaining undecided, Richardson explained, she got herself the opportunity to explain to House leaders what her problem was with the bill, which the president is expected to veto (despite the fact that it covers only the children of U.S.-born parents).

In the next version of the bill, Richardson explained, she will be pushing to have the anti-immigrant eliminated.

--Adele M. Stan

Thursday, September 27, 2007

How Verizon Explains What Net Neutrality Means

If you haven’t already heard, Verizon Wireless first decided to reject NARAL Pro-Choice America’s request to use their mobile network for a text-messaging, and then within hours reversed themselves.

Verizon's reasoning for first rejecting NARAL was that it had an internal policy to block "controversial or unsavory" text messages from the program, which its spokesman explained, laughably, someone had just forgotten to update by the time of NARAL's attempt to subscribe to the text service.

"It was an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy," said [Jeffrey Nelson, a company spokesman.] "That policy, developed before text messaging protections such as spam filters adequately protected customers from unwanted messages, was designed to ward against communications such as anonymous hate messaging and adult materials sent to children."
Oh, I’m so glad someone at Verizon decided to look at the calendar and realize that it's now 2007. You would think Verizon executives were unaware of the fact that text-messaging is becoming a common political organizing tool. An NPR story on the issue pointed out that, in 2006, young people who received text messages urging them to vote were more likely to go to the polls.

Even though they’ve now managed to revise their "dusty internal policy," has anyone asked who elected Verizon gatekeepers of political messages in the first place? This is exactly why net neutrality matters. Net neutrality is about carriers (like the phone company) not being content censors. If Verizon wouldn’t legally be allowed to deny NARAL a phone line or censor what they say on the phone, why then should they be allowed to censor their text messages and those of ordinary people? (After all, it was people who were going to be texting to NARAL that were also being censored.)

Net Neutrality is something that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of whether they are supporters of NARAL or not. It should be alarming to everyone that if Verizon can decide that a message about birth control is too "controversial or unsavory," then on what other messages can they pass judgment? Hence the term net neutrality. Because it shouldn’t matter what is the content of the messages the organization is trying to send.

In a way, I’m sort of glad Verizon tipped its hand so badly on this issue. The phone companies and cable companies have been pushing against any move to make the internet and text messages "net-neutral." (They want the option of control.) By denying NARAL's request when every other phone carrier agreed, Verizon immediately showed to millions of people exactly why we need net neutrality.

--Rachel Joy Larris

Ending a Modern Form of the Poll Tax

By Kathleen Taylor

Consider two people who are convicted of felonies. Both go to prison and serve their time. But one is able to vote upon release from custody, while the other will not be able to vote for many years after release, perhaps ever.

What makes the difference — seriousness of the offense? Length of sentence? Personal history?

In Washington, the answer is "none of the above." The person with more money is far more likely to regain the right to vote. This is because of a state law — recently upheld by the Washington Supreme Court — under which the right to vote will be restored only after payment of all court costs and other related financial obligations. And that includes interest, which accrues at 12 percent per year.

In practice, this means a wealthy citizen may be able to vote again almost immediately; a citizen who cannot afford to pay the financial portions of the sentence right away may wait many years, maybe forever, to vote again.

The system for restoring voting rights isn't just unfair; it is so complex and confusing that it causes major problems at election times. Election officials find it devilishly complicated to figure out who still owes money on a sentence. The Department of Corrections stops keeping records after persons have completed their terms of custody. Payments are made to a network of county court clerks; they each have their own accounting systems that were never designed to interface with voter-registration rolls.

As a result, state and local officials often are uncertain exactly who is eligible to vote. In short, this is a broken system.

The effects of the law are widespread, affecting tens of thousands of citizens. The vast majority of people convicted of crimes in Washington are poor when they enter prison, and even poorer when they leave. Once out, it can be difficult for them to find decent-paying jobs. Overall, only a small portion of the people convicted of felonies in Washington are ever able to vote again after they have served their time.

The loss of voting rights hits racial minorities especially hard. Felony disenfranchisement affects 3.6 percent of the state's total voting-age population, but 10.6 percent of the Latino population and 17.2 percent of the African-American population.

As a matter of principle, a democratic society should never condition the right to vote on a person's wealth. Poll taxes have been justly outlawed. And, we normally do not use the right to vote as a method of debt collection. People with unpaid parking tickets also owe money to the state, but they are not disenfranchised.

Many states have a more sensible, streamlined system. Our Northwest neighbors, Oregon and Montana, automatically restore the right to vote at the end of the term of imprisonment. A simple, clear rule based on whether a person is currently incarcerated would have eliminated some of the confusion we saw in the 2004 elections. Anyone not in prison who is otherwise eligible may register to vote. Any other system requires election officials to become bogged down in a maze of paperwork, subject to mistakes and second-guessing.

The current system also places a barrier to rehabilitation of people who have served their time. At least two recent studies have shown that people who vote after their release from prison are far less likely to commit future crimes than those who do not. As a matter of public safety, the state should encourage full political participation.

Fortunately, the legislature can fix this broken system. No constitutional amendment is required. In 2007, automatic restoration bills were introduced and garnered support by the Secretary of State's Office and the Department of Corrections. So did a wide array of organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Labor Council, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.

Though the legislation did not pass this year, it will be up for consideration again in 2008.

Gov. Christine Gregoire has observed that Washington's current re-enfranchisement system creates "a virtual debtor's prison." It doesn't have to be that way. We should join the states that automatically restore voting rights once people have finished their prison sentences. And, we shouldn't wait to act until after the next major election.
Taylor is the executive director of the ACLU of Washington.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Saudi Women Organize For The Right To Drive

Looking overseas, feminists activists in Saudi Arabia are organizing for the right to drive. Technology, from e-mail to text messaging, now makes it possible for them to coordinate and communicate their efforts in a way it never way before.

But it’s worth noting that activists might face consequences for any kind of organizing.

The last time Saudi women lobbied for the right to drive was in 1990 during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Forty-seven women were briefly detained for driving in a convoy of 15 cars in the capital, Riyadh. The women were banned from traveling, lost their jobs and were ostracized by their families and acquaintances.

Though no laws explicitly ban people from gathering signatures or circulating petitions, independent political or social activity is frowned upon in Saudi Arabia, and rights activists are routinely imprisoned.

[Organizer Fouzia al-Ayouni] , a 48-year-old mother of three, counted the possible consequences of agitating for change. "We could be detained, we could lose our jobs, and we could be banned from traveling," she said. "But if we get the right to drive, it would be worth it."

It takes courage to organize in the face of that kind of opposition.

Friday, September 21, 2007

College Kids Paying The Price For Birth Control

As a young woman in college, I have had first hand experience with the rising costs concerning birth control pills. In the past year, the specific brand of birth control pills I use have gone up almost an extra $10 a month, from $40 to $50. Without coverage, my prescription runs $600 a year. Although I’m fortunate to have an insurance company that covers a nice percentage of my costs, meaning I only pay $20 a month, not everyone is as lucky as I am.

According to the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) Pro-Choice, only 24 of the 50 states in the U.S. require insurance companies to cover birth control. Fewer college campuses are making contraceptives and preventative care available to students. Also, I find it rather interesting (and ridiculous) that some insurance providers cover Viagra but not the pill. Men can get someone to pay for their erections but women are denied control over their ovaries? I don’t think so.

Anne Marie Chaker makes a good point in the Wall Street Journal.
Colleges and universities say the change is having a significant impact on their health centers and the students they serve. Prices have begun skyrocketing for many popular brands of birth control. Health centers are having to reconfigure their offerings and write new prescriptions. And college students are making some tough choices, such as switching to cheaper generic brands or forgoing their privacy in order to claim their pills on their parents' insurance.
I urge everyone to read in its entirety, here.

The University of Kentucky’s newspaper, The Kentucky Kernel, recently featured a great editorial about the rising costs of birth control pills. Will we continue to pay, whatever the cost, to prevent becoming young parents? I think we will.

If the pills are really that important to the students, they will still likely find a way to pay for the pills. Dr. Greg Moore, UHS health director, compared the increase in the cost of pills to the increase in the cost of gas prices. “You just deal with it,” he said.
It seems that more people would want everyone to have access not only to the pill, but all forms of contraception. I’m sure parents don’t want to know their kids are having sex (much like we don’t want to know about our parents,) however, don’t we want them to be protected? I think it’s important for college students as well as campus publications to talk about this issue and educate more young people about what’s going on with their health insurance. Higher birth control prices will have a negative impact on sexually active college and high school students. Some may not be able or want to pay the new amounts and might refrain from protection altogether.

Well, we can always rely on abstinence only sex education, right? It seems to be a rather effective means keeping the number of unexpected pregnancies and STD’s down. Oh wait, no it’s not. It’s completely naïve and idiotic. Let’s see, how about we take away condoms, birth control and any knowledge about safe sex. Talk about being safe. I’m sure the hormone-filled youth will refrain from sex.

As for the issue of Viagra being covered while prescriptions like Yaz and Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo are not, NARAL has organized a petition you can sign. Along with your signature, you can leave a personal message to your state senator. I encourage everybody to sign.

--Ashlie McEachern

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Aurora, IL Planned Parenthood Clinic Opening Stalled

Apparently even when offering legal, constitutionally protected services, cities like Aurora will become gun-shy when anti-choice protestors become involved. Planned Parenthood of Chicago is going to federal court to try to force the city of Aurora to allow their new clinic to open as planned on September 18.
Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area is in federal court today seeking an injunction to allow its new health center in Aurora to open as scheduled on September 18, saying the City of Aurora has no legal basis for blocking the opening and that its revocation of a temporary operating permit is motivated solely by political opposition to the constitutionally protected right to abortion services.
The issue was over Planned Parenthood’s attempts to protect its new clinic from being targeted by anti-choice activists before it even opened.

As the Washington Post article points out, numerous attempts to open new clinics in other cities have been stymied by a variety of tactics, most famously refusing to sell concrete and other materials to construction companies working on a new clinic in Austin, Texas in 2003. (The tactics backfired however, brining a lot of attention to the anti-choice methods and the clinic did eventually open).

What the anti-choice side fails to acknowledge is that the women of Aurora are asking for these services. The Beacon News (the local paper) reported that 18 women already had appointments scheduled for Tuesday.

And lest anyone forget, Planned Parenthood also offers many services besides abortion.
Planned Parenthood says the Aurora clinic is sorely needed in a region with low access to reproductive health services and high rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy. The Alan Guttmacher Institute ranks Illinois 46th nationwide in access to contraceptive services. With a fast-increasing population of more than 157,000, including about one-third Latino immigrants, Aurora is the second-largest city in Illinois.
The city has backed down a little by not forcing the Planned Parenthood staff to vacate the building even though their temporary permit is expiring, but the opening has already been delayed while the case is pending before a federal judge.

---Rachel Joy Larris

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Photo by Joel Anderson, courtesy of The Body Shop

Anita Roddick's Legacy

Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, died on September 10 of a brain hemorrhage. Looking over the empire she built is pretty incredible. Even if her business has its flaws (and which ones don't?), it's hard to deny that for many non-activists, The Body Shop was their first introduction to environmental and third-world development issues. I like this quote from Time.
"She made shopping a political act," says her friend Josephine Fairley, co-founder of organic chocolate company Green & Black's. "She was the first person to do that. She made cosmetics fun, sexy and affordable, and there was always a message. But instead of 'Buy this mascara, it will change your life,' her message was, 'Buy this mascara, it could change someone else's life.'"
Ultimately, the business retail world has come around to green marketing because of businesses like Roddick’s. If we’re talking about global warming today, it’s hard not to say that it’s at least partially because she helped put environmental issues in the mainstream eye.

In addition, Jessica on Feministing reminds us that The Body Shop also had some very unique beauty campaigns that are worth remembering. Long before the Dove firming lotion ads, The Body Shop took note that beauty comes in all different forms.

It’s a shame she died so young. After stepping down from management of The Body Shop in 2002, she became involved in many charities and nonprofits, including Children On The Edge, Project Censored and Amnesty International. (Her Web site, is a full of connections to organizations.

As Time puts it:
Since the sale of The Body Shop, Roddick, whose sense of social injustice kicked into gear after she read a book on the Holocaust when she was 10, had been focusing on the charities and campaigns she held dear. Claiming that she didn't want to "die rich," she gave away around $6 million a year and planned to spend the rest of her time doling out grants and donations and lending her name to causes like stopping sweatshop labor and protesting the imprisonment of two of the "Angola 3" Black Panther members being held in a Louisiana state prison for a murder many say they didn't commit.

Writing on her website recently, Roddick said: "The most exciting part of my life is now — I believe the older you get, the more radical you become."

--- Rachel Joy Larris

Abortion Stakes Are Personal For Reporter

By Allison Stevens

(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum, discussing concern over the threat to women's health.)

I'm a lucky woman. Today I hold in my arms my newborn son, born in good health - both his and mine. As the Washington bureau chief for a news site that covers issues important to women, I often cover the ideological warfare over reproductive rights.

A frightening moment at the beginning of my pregnancy gave me an almost visceral perspective on the most recent Supreme Court battle over abortion, one that has already inspired lawmakers in a number of states to enact or contemplate action to further limit a woman's right to make decisions about her reproductive life based on the best medical option for her particular circumstances.

My pregnancy officially began the way many end: with a late-night trip to the hospital. Last October, before I was able to confirm with my doctor the positive results of an at-home pregnancy test, I headed to the emergency room after I experienced some bleeding, a sign of possible miscarriage.

When, during my emergency ultrasound, I first laid eyes on that tiny white egg, I had the kind of reaction that opponents of abortion say often accompanies ultrasounds: a deeper connection to the growing life within me.

With a good report, I quickly resumed my work schedule, covering a Supreme Court case challenging a ban passed by Congress on the abortion procedure known to doctors as "dilation and extraction."

The 2003 law banning the "D&X" abortion procedure does not include an exception for the health of the woman, which the justices who decided Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, deemed a necessary caveat in the limitations they put on legalized abortion -- and one retained in subsequent decisions by the high court in later laws concerning abortion.

I listened as the justices gamely debated the merits of protecting women's health during pregnancy, a condition only one--Ruth Bader Ginsburg--had ever experienced.

That debate was, for me, a different kind of ultrasound, a look into the minds of those who have the ultimate say over my reproductive life. Like its medical counterpart, this inside look intensified my feelings about my pregnancy: I became more acutely aware of my health--and my vulnerability--as a pregnant woman.

In the first pregnancy book I read, the classic "What to Expect When You're Expecting," I encountered a long list what could go wrong with the fetus, and me. Scariest was the chapter on possible complications, which covered everything from such relatively benign problems as gestational diabetes to pregnancy-related cancer, comas and seizures, as well as a disease that can cause permanent damage to a pregnant woman's nervous system and other organs. Women over 35 are more likely to have problematic pregnancies, and the results of prenatal tests such as amniocentesis are generally not released until mid-pregnancy.

During the banned procedure, also known as an "intact dilation and evacuation" abortion, the fetus is partly brought out of the uterus before it is aborted. In her dissent to the 5-4 decision, Ginsburg noted that this procedure is safer for many women because it reduces the number of times a physician must insert medical instruments into the uterus, which can damage or puncture the uterine lining. It also decreases the likelihood that fetal remains will be left in the uterus, which can cause infection, hemorrhage, and infertility, and it is faster to complete than other procedures, potentially reducing bleeding, the risk of infection and complications due to anesthesia, she said.

Moreover, the procedure's ban "saves not a single fetus from destruction, for it targets only a method of performing abortion," Ginsburg said.

The decision has implications even beyond its immediate scope. Doctors may be more reluctant to perform other, legal procedures for fear they will be perceived as violating the law. And it paves the way for anti-choice legislators to pursue more restrictions to abortion that lack exceptions for women's health.

Louisiana just passed a new law banning an abortion procedure, and conservatives in the Kansas legislature have commissioned a study of how the court's decision could impact the practice of abortion in that state.

My ultrasound may have served to make my pregnancy real for me. But the decision of five men to disregard its possible impact on my health, while the only woman on the bench took assessed in real terms the physical risks involved with pregnancy made real for me the power men still hold over my body and my health.
Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews, a nonprofit independent news agency that covers issues of particular concern to women and provides women's perspectives on public policy. Stevens gave birth to her son, on July 18.

*A version of this article originally appeared on a non-profit independent news agency that covers issues of particular concern to women and provides women's perspectives on public policy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Ticking Clock On Pay Discrimination
By Barbara Arnwine

Look around your office. Do you know what your co-workers are really being paid? Probably not. A recent survey found that only 10 percent of companies have pay openness policies. And if you were paid less by your employer simply because you are female how long do you think it would take to find out? Probably not until you’ve been working there a long time, maybe years.

That is exactly what happened to Lilly Ledbetter. Her employer, Goodyear, kept compensation information confidential and it wasn’t until decades after the fact she found out that she was being paid less. By the time of her retirement, she was paid $3,727 monthly, while the lowest paid male doing the same job was paid $4,286. Taking her employer to court, a jury found that she received raises less frequently than her male colleagues because of her gender. The jury awarded her damages for this intentional discrimination, but on appeal to the Supreme Court earlier this year, a majority tossed out the award because Ms. Ledbetter failed to file her claim within 180 days of her employer’s discriminatory decisions – decisions she didn’t have reason to suspect until long after they were made.

Pay discrimination based on gender is a violation of federal law and victims of such discrimination should be able to recover lost wages and perhaps other damages as well. But the Supreme Court has now made it practically impossible for victims to recoup damages when they have been discriminated against.

In order to encourage victims of discrimination to file their claims promptly, the law requires that they file within 180 days of the discriminatory practice. So far, so good. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, interpreted the law to mean that the 180-day clock starts when the employer makes the discriminatory decision, not each time the employee receives a smaller paycheck. So, if the employee didn’t learn about her employer’s decision to pay her less when the decision was made, her claim of discrimination will probably be too late, even though the employer continues to pay her less money.

The pattern in the Ledbetter case is not unusual. In a 2002 case, another employee didn’t find out about her employer’s compensation policies until a printout of salaries appeared on her desk seven years after her starting salary was set lower than co-workers. In a 1998 case, the employee found out about salary disparities when she read about them in the newspaper. Unlike discriminatory decisions to hire and fire, compensation decisions are typically confidential. Consequently, it makes more sense to start the clock each time the employer makes a discriminatory payment rather than when the decision to discriminate is made.

Ledbetter was a 5-4 decision in which the conservative majority rejected the consistent position held by most of the lower courts for years. Over 20 years ago, in a race discrimination case, the Court observed that “each week’s paycheck that delivers less to a Black than to a similarly situated white is a wrong actionable under Title VII.” This common sense idea means that if the employee files within 180 days of receiving the discriminatory pay, he or she can have their day in court.

Some argue that the clock should start when a reasonable person would have discovered the wrong, but this vague standard is very difficult to apply in a compensation setting. In particular, employees may learn about pay differences but might not have enough information to suspect discrimination until much later. It’s a cruel joke on the victim if their clock runs out before they even know it started.

Rather than opening the door to such time-consuming disputes, a better approach would be to change the law back to the definition that worked for decades and that has proven to be workable for both employers and employees. As it stands right now the Supreme Court has practically given employers a loophole to discriminate, as long as they aren’t found out in 180 days.

Congress has a lot of difficult issues to deal with when it returns in September – Iraq, immigration, the deficit, on and on. But some problems are easy to solve, if the political will to stand up to the White House and the business community is there. This is one of them.
Arnwine is the executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Putting Women Back in the Debate
By Martha Burk

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day. Most Americans don’t even know what it is, and aside from commemorations by a few female leaders on Capitol Hill, it is hardly noticed. But it marks one of the most important days of the last century for women -- the day the final state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920 -- and women were granted the vote.

That year also marked what suffragists of the time thought would soon be another constitutional milestone, the Equal Rights Amendment. With their newfound franchise, women believed they could convince legislators to put women on equal footing in the Constitution with men (white men from the beginning, black men since passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868). The ERA was penned by Alice Paul, the suffragist jailed for picketing the White House and nearly starved in Occoquan prison outside Washington.

But it was not to be. Here we are, 87 years later—a lifetime in anyone’s book—and women still haven’t achieved equal constitutional status. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA was not passed and sent to the states for ratification until 1972, with an artificial time limit of only seven years for approval by the states. In that brief time it was ratified by 35 states, but was stopped three states short by millions of corporate dollars backing Phyllis Schlafly's anti-woman storm troopers, who feared unisex toilets more than they valued freedom from discrimination.

Most U.S. citizens don’t remember that fight, and many believe the ERA was ratified. The reality is that the legal rights women currently enjoy are not rooted in the Constitution, but in a series of statutes like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, executive orders like affirmative action, and various rules interpreting laws such as Title IX, guaranteeing equal educational opportunity. Because we don’t have an ERA, depending on their origin, all of these can be revoked in the dead of night by any simple majority of Congress, bureaucrats in a hostile administration, or the president himself.

George W. Bush and company know this very well. They have been systematically eroding the gains women have made since they took office. They have weakened Title IX through rule changes. A major one now allows schools to force girls, but not boys, to prove they are interested in participating in sports before they are given the chance to play, and so-called “separate but equal” single sex public schools are allowed for the first time since 1972.

With the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, the assaults on women’s employment rights and legal abortions have begun in earnest. Wasting no time, the Court has already upheld the first federal abortion ban since Roe v. Wade, and severely limited women’s right to sue in cases where they’ve experienced pay discrimination.

Recently renamed the Women's Equality Amendment by its chief sponsor, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the ERA is the essence of brevity: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." That’s the whole thing. A simple concept that had the blessing of both political parties until the Republicans struck it from their platform in 1980 and the Democrats followed suit in 2004.

It’s high time the ERA was put back in the center of public debate, and this long election season is the perfect opportunity.

Office seekers not remembering that right to vote we’re celebrating on the 26th do so at their peril. Women are now the majority of the electorate, and can control any election. Close to 80 percent of the public, both female and male, favor an Equal Rights Amendment. Candidates of both parties for the Congress and the presidency ought to be listening.
Burk is the director for the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Women Don't Make The Cover

Apparently news and business magazines aren't for the ladies. At least not the covers.

Beverly Wettenstein has a fascinating article on Huffington Post where she tracked the magazine covers of five weekly magazines: Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, Newsweek and
Time throughout 2006 to see how many covers featured women or were written by them. The numbers aren't good and everyone should check out her article.

If women's presence in the business magazine world and the so-called "serious" newsweeklies aren't seen except for the annual "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" (Fortune) and "Women & Leadership"(Newsweek) issues, then what does that imply about the other 51 weeks?

Wettenstein also suggests that others continue tracking covers for 2007, which is a great idea. Tracking women's presence in media is a good way to see where we aren't.

The National Women's Editorial Forum is also conducting such a study involving the editorial pages of daily newspaper and we also encourage others to help. Simply read your local paper (or papers) and scan its editorial pages. Log onto our website and (after registering to be an editorial page monitor) it will take you to the electronic form. We need monitors to provide information about their paper and the op-eds that are present on its pages. With the Women's Monitor, NWEF will be able to gather data from all over the country about how often women are featured and what they are saying.

---Rachel Joy Larris

Thursday, August 16, 2007

How Gender And Race Affect Media Coverage
of Missing Persons Cases

One of today's banner stories on is actually a pretty good article that compares which missing persons cases receive media coverage (white women, especially those who are young and attractive) with those that don't (men, women of color of any age or level of attractiveness, and everyone else).

The article compares the stories of Stepha Henry, a 22-year-old black woman who disappeared while on vacation in Florida in May, and the well-covered case of Jessie Marie Davis, a 26-year-old pregnant white woman who disappeared from her Canton, Ohio, home in mid-June.
Race, Social Class and Media Coverage

Why does Stepha Henry get less coverage than Jessie Davis?

"The answer is pure unconscious racism," says the Poynter Institute's [Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar]. "But it's not just race. It's also social class and gender."

And the difference in media attention does not go unnoticed.

"There is a huge disparity between black missing women and white missing women when it comes to coverage," [Georgia Goslee, the attorney for Stepha's mother, Sylvia] says. "If Stepha could receive half the coverage of the other white girls who are missing, they might find her."

People of every race and age disappear. But missing minorities, men and the elderly simply don't generate as much media interest.
The article even points out that the cases of missing men go virtually without coverage, as well, whether white or non-white. And the likely reasons for non-coverage of missing men isn't flattering to either sexes.

For 2006, 173,903 missing persons records were entered for adults (21 and older) into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database; 99,736 were men, and 74,167 were women. However, FBI spokeswoman Connie Marsteller refused to draw conclusions from the data, saying because police departments and county sheriff's offices are not required to report missing adults, the information is not complete.

Why do the media - and their audiences - care less about missing men than women? Clark thinks it's because there's a public perception that men can take care of themselves (even though a lot of the missing men might have been victims of foul play).

If a missing person is white, female, young, attractive and has an upper-middle-class background, media coverage of her case will be far more thorough than coverage of missing men, minorities or the elderly, Clark says.

"This taps in to a sort of ancient fairy-tale mentality: the kidnapped princess, the damsel in distress."

So if you aren't the "fairy-tale princess" type, I guess that means you aren't worth coverage? This demeans and degrades the humanity of both the men and women who disappear. It also emphasizes whose lives society tells us to value above others'.

-- Rachel Joy Larris

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Birmingham Blues And Birmingham Strength

Marcy Bloom at RH RealityCheck offers another account about Operation Save America's "Siege of Birmingham" and their attempts to shut down the same abortion clinic that was bombed in 1998 by the terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph.

In Marcy's account, Jeff Lyons, husband of Emily Lyons, one of the victims of Rudolph's bombing, recounts that terrible day:
Jeff Lyons, Emily's devoted husband, showed me the locations where both Emily and Sandy had been standing when Eric Rudolph's hateful bomb detonated in front of the clinic on that January day almost 10 years ago. Sandy was blown apart; in fact, he was decapitated. Blood and body parts were everywhere. It was tough to imagine. Jeff said that for many years, when it rained and the soil of the garden in front of the clinic shifted, pieces of Emily's pink scrubs and Sandy's blue uniform came up though the grass. Reminders of violence and hate linger for a long time in many places and in many lives.
This is part 2 of Marcy's account. You can also read part 1.

--Rachel Joy Larris

Thursday, August 09, 2007

More on Mostly Male Netroots

There’s still a lot of talk in the wake of YearlyKos about the issue of white male bloggers being the loudest voices of the netroots movement.

In addition to my colleague Adele Stan’s take and that of Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sisters, Inc., now syndicated Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman has written about it.

Netroots is mainly for men

Last week, these progressive political bloggers not only attracted 1,200 to Chicago for the Yearly Kos convention, but made it a designated stop for seven out of the eight Democratic candidates.

Nevertheless, there is another, less flattering way in which broadband has followed broadcast and the liberal political bloggers mimic the conservative talk-show hosts. The chief messengers are overwhelmingly men - white men, even angry white men.

I began tracking the maleness of this media last spring while I was a visiting fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. An intrepid graduate student created a spreadsheet of the top 90 political blogs. A full 42 percent were edited and written by men-only, while seven percent were by women-only. Another 45 percent were edited or authored by both men and women, though the 'coed' mix was overwhelmingly male.

Yes, this is the kettle of the MSM - mainstream media - calling the pot of the netroots male. In fairness, half of all 96 million blogs are written by women. But in the smaller political sphere, what is touted as a fresh force for change looks an awful lot like a new boy network.

---Rachel Joy Larris
Preparing a New Generation for Self-Government

By Annette Boyd Pitts

Most Americans do not understand our most basic constitutional principles and are disengaging from civic and political life. Voter turnout, especially among young voters, continues to reflect an indifference to the importance of participation in American democracy.

In December 2005, the Florida Bar conducted a poll of Floridians to determine public knowledge of basic democratic principles. The results reinforced a national poll conducted by the American Bar Association. Fewer than 60 percent of adults could identify the three branches of government, even in a multiple choice test; and less than half understood the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances.

Even more recently, a national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found one-third of adult Americans were not able to identify even one of the three branches of government.

Possibly even more troublesome is the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in its Civics Report Card. NAEP is the only congressionally mandated sampling of student achievement in the nation. The 2006 test results which were released this May revealed serious deficiencies among our nation’s students. The 2006 NAEP measured the civic knowledge and skills of 4th, 8th and 12th grade students nationally. The assessment is organized in three main components including civic knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic dispositions. The assessment found:
  • Only 28 percent of 8th graders could explain the historic purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

  • Only 14 percent of 4th graders knew that defendants have the right to a lawyer.

  • Only 22 percent of 8th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level.

  • Only 27 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level.
While there is much to be done to improve student knowledge and skills in civics and government, Florida is making some progress.

As part of a nationwide campaign to advance civics and government in our public schools the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. (FLREA) is working with the Center for Civic Education and the Campaign to Promote Civic Education to spearhead efforts in Florida. Together with the League of Women Voters, the Florida Bar, and Common Cause, FLREA surveyed school districts in Florida and found that less than 10 percent requited the teaching of civics and government as a stand alone course in middle school. Middle school became the primary focus of efforts in the Florida legislative campaign last year. In 2006, the Florida legislature passed a requirement for students to take a semester of civics prior to exiting 8th grade.

Standards and testing are two major priorities during 2007 will be for 2008. New standards are being developed for all social studies courses in Florida. The Florida Department of Education has assembled a group of framers and writers to develop standards and benchmarks for all grade levels. Civics and government is one of the subject areas addressed in the standards. A wide range of groups and individuals such as former Senator Bob Graham and former Congressman Lou Frey are spearheading efforts to include civics and government as an FCAT assessment area.

Florida also has a number of programs to assist school districts in meeting the new mandate and strengthen district level civics and government initiatives. FLREA administers the “We the People…the Citizen and the Constitution” curriculum and mock congressional hearing program in each of the state’s 25 school districts. The organization also administers Project Citizen, a companion program for middle school students to actively engage in solving community problems through public policy. Other initiatives in the state include academic competitions, democracy camps, professional development institutes for teachers and partnerships between the judicial and education communities to help to strengthen school-based civic education efforts.

These new public policy initiatives are paving the way for Florida to be in the forefront of the nationwide campaign to advance civics and government in our state’s public schools and to raise this valuable instructional area to its rightful status.
Boyd Pitts is the founding executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. She is the recipient of the National Improvements in Justice Award and has worked in over 20 different countries to advance education for democracy.