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.