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 na├»ve 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.