Thursday, May 08, 2008

Unfinished Business on Women's Issues

By Polly Williams

With the General Assembly about to start its “short session” – it is important to remind the legislature of its unfinished business on issues of women’s equality.

North Carolina Women United’s recently released report card on the 2007 legislature is a good assessment of what was accomplished in 2007 – and a blueprint for what needs to happen on some issues in the upcoming session.

While the report focuses on women, the truth is that many of these measures benefit men as well. What is good for women and families also benefits everybody.

On the whole, last year shows a number of successes in proposals supported by the NCWU coalition in areas of economic security, access to health care, violence against women, and citizen participation and equality. Perhaps the most exciting of these is the state earned income tax credit (EITC). The federal EITC has been shown to be the most effective economic benefit offered by the government to enable working families to emerge from poverty. Although the state will allow a tax credit of only 3.5 percent of the federal EITC, it will provide a refundable credit to over 800,000 low and moderate-income families. A recent report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center showed that the state’s poorest working families pay more out of their income for taxes than those who earn more. The EITC is an offset for this disparate tax burden.

The Assembly also made progress affecting victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. One move made it a felony to violate a domestic violence protection order while carrying a deadly weapon. Another allows women who are victims of domestic violence or stalking to change their names without a public posting.

The General Assembly deserves credit for this legislation, but there’s a slew of work that wasn’t accomplished.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the failure of the state to provide comprehensive and accurate sex education, including STD and pregnancy prevention. At least 17 states have rejected abstinence-only program funds because states must provide matching funds, and the programs have been shown to be ineffective. At the same time, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among women has increased, and in North Carolina the decrease in teenage pregnancies has leveled off. The proposal to change the state’s current abstinence-until- marriage curriculum to an abstinence-based comprehensive sexuality education curriculum met bitter opposition and never came to the floor of the legislature.

Unfortunately this and other domestic violence issues are still with us and need more attention. Some proposals still pending would strengthen domestic violence protective orders while another increases funding for domestic violence programs.

There were some gains and some setbacks made in the area of help for elderly and disabled people. Legislators approved a proposal that establishes a star rating system for adult care homes, a means of giving guidance to families of persons in need of assisted living in choosing a new home that will offer good quality care. Such a system is especially important in trying to select a home from long distance. However it was disappointing that the increase for the Home and Community Care Block Grant -- which funds services that enable elderly and disabled persons to remain at home -- was so small, only $536,000. The reality is that $14 million is needed to provide services for the 10,900 people on waiting lists.

There are a host of other issues the General Assembly needs to consider. There are proposals that address the prevention of bullying and harassment in schools, and another, requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraception to sexual assault victims. Likewise, proposals for paid or unpaid sick days to help the estimated 42 percent of North Carolina’s workers without sick leave that went nowhere last year, should be addressed this session. It’s time for North Carolina’s elected officials to get to work on this unfinished business.
Williams is a retired university professor and a volunteer at NC Justice Center. More information about NC Women United may be found at:
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 5/08

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Playing Political Games In Doctors’ Offices

By Kellie Freeman Rohrbaugh

Over 700,000 Missourians don’t have access to adequate health care coverage. The fact that women experience this disparity more intensely than men, is further compounded if they live in rural Missouri. Politicians in Jefferson City just don’t understand the struggles of women and families living in “outstate Missouri.”

In order to access health care, rural Missouri women make an appointment, often well in advance, make sure they have time off work and childcare, and then fill the gas tank for the long ride into the doctor’s office. The last thing anyone wants to deal with is more politicians and lawyers telling them how and when to talk to their doctor.

But it seems another aspect of women’s health care has just gotten more complicated.

In April the Missouri House passed a proposal which includes a laundry list of provisions restricting abortion -- many of which will have a disproportional impact on rural women.

Missouri already has some of the nation’s strictest laws regarding abortion. One of these is a 24-hour waiting period between counseling and the procedure. Right now, women living in rural Missouri can talk to their own physician before meeting with the doctor who will perform the procedure. This proposal takes away that option by mandating that the counseling and abortion care be done by the same physician. Living in a rural area this will cause delays of several days or even weeks -- pushing a woman’s procedure later into her pregnancy. This is not good medical practice and it is awful public policy.

The action by the House forces politics further into the exam room by requiring doctors and counselors to use brochures and videos produced by state bureaucrats. Another outrageous provision forces health care workers to post signs that carry false promises of state-backed assistance in carrying a child to term and providing for that child once born.

A responsible government should promote medically accurate information for women to make responsible decisions. Bureaucrats feeding doctors lines to recite isn’t going to help women get the care they need. The government should not invade the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship -- nor order women where to go for their medical care.

Perhaps the most egregious part of the process has been the sponsors going on and on about how much they care about women’s health. They certainly don’t think women can make their own decisions because the proposal actually takes away the rights of women who have been victims of domestic abuse or even rape.

The bill redefines coercion in this way, if a woman facing an unintended pregnancy reveals that she is the victim of domestic abuse or even rape, it becomes a crime for the doctor to provide her with abortion care. It is telling that most domestic violence experts are opposed to this provision, and are asking "how does your status as a battered woman take away your ability to make up your own mind?"

There’s nothing in the proposal that addresses the real issues that women who are victims of rape or abuse face. It just takes away their ability to act on their own behalf in the doctor’s office.

The idea that women are being forced into abortions by abusers is entirely false. Missouri statute already requires women to sign a consent form stating that her decision is free and voluntary. But beyond that measure, Planned Parenthood’s trained staff goes through medical and social histories with each patient to determine that it is her own decision to have an abortion. If at any time a counselor determines that there are pressures from someone else, the procedure is not performed. Like all health care providers, Planned Parenthood is subject to mandatory reporting policies, and required to report sexual assault or domestic abuse.

This plan will infringe upon the doctor-patient relationship and further restricts abortion care in Missouri. Using emotionally-charged language hides the proposal’s true intentions and further burdens victims of domestic abuse. It does nothing to help women in need and instead is merely using scare tactics to win elections.

If the political leaders in Missouri were serious about reducing the need for abortion, they would not enact measures that put further strain on rural women and victims of domestic violence who are seeking health care. It’s time to put prevention first and focus on common sense solutions such as increasing access to contraception and other family planning services.
Rohrbaugh is public affairs director of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Missouri.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 5/08

Monday, May 05, 2008

Many Women Unaware of Access to Emergency Contraception

By Alison Mondi

Since emergency contraception was approved by the FDA in 1998, Washington’s pharmacists and lawmakers have led the nation in ensuring that women have access to this safe and effective form of birth control. Yet many women are still unaware of the many resources and programs our state provides to ensure that they can access Plan B.

The FDA approved Plan B for over-the-counter sales to women over the age of 18 in 2006. However few women are aware that Washington passed a law in 1998 allowing pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription. This program -- known as Pharmacy Access -- allows all women, regardless of age, to obtain Plan B without a prescription at participating pharmacies and goes a long way toward removing the age-barrier to over-the-counter Plan B access.

In April 2007 the Washington State Board of Pharmacy took a further step to ensure women’s access to Plan B emergency contraception by unanimously approving two rules that protect access to valid prescription and behind-the-counter medications. Unfortunately opponents to Plan B access have obtained an injunction which currently puts these rules on hold and allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception for personal, non-medical reasons.

The ongoing challenge to Plan B availability led NARAL Pro-Choice Washington Foundation to launch the Emergency Contraception Access Project to better understand how accessible Plan B is for women across the state. Using lists supplied by the Pharmacy Board, we compiled a comprehensive list of all the pharmacies in the state then recruited project volunteers to survey these pharmacies by phone regarding their stocking, prescribing and billing policies for Plan B. The results can be seen on an interactive map on our website.

What did we find? On the positive side, the survey indicates that a woman can obtain Plan B at the majority of pharmacies across the state. But we were surprised to find, in a state as progressive as Washington, that 10 percent of surveyed pharmacies did not stock or refused to dispense Plan B.

Unfortunately availability is not the same as accessibility. Depending on the pharmacy Plan B retails for up to $80 for a single dose, greatly impeding access. Fortunately for some low-income women, Washington State’s Medicaid and Take Charge programs will cover the cost of family planning supplies and medications, which includes Plan B.

Yet we found in the course of our study, that 24 percent of pharmacists surveyed were either unaware that the Medicaid reimburses pharmacy providers for Plan B for eligible clients, or had never utilized the option.

This is a problem to which better education for pharmacists might help. That is why the next phase of the Emergency Contraception Access Project involves distributing informational brochures about Medicaid and Plan B to pharmacies and community service offices throughout the state. Low-income women, like all women, should not be denied assistance the state specifically set out to give them.

Washington State’s pharmacists have been leaders in the effort to increase women’s access to Plan B. Ensuring that low-income women are aware of the full range of payment options regarding Plan B is the next step in ensuring that all women in Washington have access to this form of contraception.
Alison Mondi is the communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. Click here for an interactive map of availability of emergency contraception in Washington State.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Washington Forum. 4/08

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Fair Wage Engenders Basic Human Dignity

By C. Melissa Snarr, Ph.D.

The United States first introduced minimum-wage legislation in the midst of the Great Depression. Recognizing the failures of unregulated markets, the nation chose to draw a moral line below which no market economy could fall; desperate people should not be required to work at desperation wages.

Citizen-emboldened politicians understood taking advantage of people's economic vulnerability was morally unconscionable, even amid economic turmoil.

Minimum-wage legislation secured a simple principle for the regulation of markets: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. But in the past 40 years, elite-driven politicians eroded this principle as they refused to index the wage with consumer-price demands. The minimum wage will rise this year to $6.55 an hour, but it would take $9.70 an hour to reach its buying power in 1968 -- the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died supporting Memphis sanitation workers' fair-wage struggle.

The living-wage movement seeks to restore a basic moral principle to the ongoing regulation of markets. People working a full-time job should be paid enough money to secure decent housing, food, transportation and health care for their family. In other words, people should be able to "live" in the most basic way on a minimum wage. In Davidson County, this means Metro government employees would need $10.36 an hour to avoid choosing between food, rent, electricity or doctor visits for their children (and that excludes savings, dining out and entertainment). Similarly, a worker living in Memphis would need $12 an hour without health insurance or $10 if health care were provided.

Contrary to common myths, 70 percent of minimum-wage earners in the U.S. are adults, many with families. These are not starter jobs for wealthy suburban teens. Wages are not depressed by undocumented workers but by corporate greed (states with the largest influx of undocumented workers have actually seen increases in jobs for documented workers and comparable stagnation of wages). As the Fiscal Policy Institute and others have documented, the number of small businesses and overall employment rate actually grew in states requiring wages higher than the federal minimum.

While worker productivity has increased steadily over the past several decades and CEO salaries have skyrocketed, wages have not. This is a moral and economic issue that requires government action.

In 1968, the Memphis sanitation workers carried signs that said simply, "I AM A MAN." They knew living wages were signals of basic human dignity. An employee who works multiple jobs to make ends meet has little time for family, kids, church or community. Homework help, neighborhood watches and volunteering fade under the demands of basic survival. We all lose in that erosion of community.

As a person of faith I must note that all religious traditions address the dignity workers deserve. Nations are judged by their treatment of the poor. God even rejects the worship of those who build their wealth on the backs of the poor. Created in the image of God, we are called to honor that image in the other -- and that includes what we pay for the work our nation requires.

Dr. Snarr is an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 5/08