Tag Archives: freedoms

Activists predict abortion to be hot topic in 2016 campaigns

With a deeper-than-ever split between Republicans and Democrats over abortion, activists on both sides of the debate foresee a 2016 presidential campaign in which the nominees tackle the volatile topic more aggressively than in past elections.

Friction over the issue also is likely to surface in key Senate races. And the opposing camps will be further energized by Republican-led congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood and by Supreme Court consideration of tough anti-abortion laws in Texas.

“It’s an amazing convergence of events,” said Charmaine Yoest, CEO of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life. “We haven’t seen a moment like this for 40 years.”

In the presidential race, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is a longtime defender of abortion rights and has voiced strong support for Planned Parenthood — a major provider of abortions, health screenings and contraceptives — it is assailed by anti-abortion activists and Republican officeholders.

In contrast, nearly all of the GOP candidates favor overturning the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Some of the top contenders – including Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – disapprove of abortions even in cases of rape and incest.

“We may very well have the most extreme Republican presidential nominee since Roe – a nominee who’s not in favor of abortion in any possible way,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. The organization, which supports female candidates who back abortion rights, says it is en route to breaking its fundraising records. A similar claim is made by some anti-abortion political action groups.

What’s changed for this election? One factor is the increased polarization of the two major parties. Only a handful of anti-abortion Democrats and abortion-rights Republicans remain in Congress, and recent votes attempting to ban late-term abortions and halt federal funding to Planned Parenthood closely followed party lines.

Another difference: Republicans in the presidential field and in Congress seem more willing than in past campaigns to take the offensive on abortion-related issues. Past nominees George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney opposed abortion but were not as outspoken as some of the current GOP candidates.

“Abortion will bubble over into the general election,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports female candidates opposed to abortion. “If you don’t know how to handle this issue, you will be eviscerated.”

As the campaign unfolds, other factors will help keep the abortion debate in the spotlight.

The Supreme Court will be hearing arguments, probably in March, regarding a Texas law enacted in 2013 that would force numerous abortion clinics to close. One contested provision requires abortion facilities to be constructed like surgical centers; another says doctors performing abortions at clinics must have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

The Texas dispute will have echoes in other states as social conservatives lobby for more laws restricting abortion. Americans United for Life plans a multistate push for a package of bills called the Infants’ Protection Project; one measure would ban abortions performed because of fetal abnormalities such as Down syndrome while another would ban abortions after five months of pregnancy.

Also unfolding during the campaign will be a new investigation launched by House Republicans to examine the practices of Planned Parenthood and other major abortion providers. The panel’s chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, says its work will likely continue past Election Day.

The investigation — denounced by Democrats as a partisan witch hunt — is among several congressional and state probes resulting from the release of undercover videos made by anti-abortion activists. They claim the videos show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of fetal tissue in violation of federal law; Planned Parenthood denies any wrongdoing and says the programs in question at a handful of its clinics entailed legal donations of fetal tissue.

Cruz is among many Republicans who have already passed judgment on Planned Parenthood, calling it “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” He welcomed the endorsement of anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, who helped orchestrate the undercover video operation.

Donald Trump, who leads the GOP presidential polls, has been harder to pin down on the issue. He describes himself as “pro-life” and open to defunding Planned Parenthood, while acknowledging that he held different views in the past.

Planned Parenthood’s leaders say a majority of U.S. voters oppose efforts to cut off its federal funding, most of which subsidizes non-abortion health services for patients on Medicaid. Planned Parenthood’s political action fund hopes to spend a record amount – more than $15 million – on election-related advocacy.

The fund’s executive vice president, Dawn Laguens, contends that some GOP presidential hopefuls, including Cruz and Rubio, may have hurt their general election prospects by making strong bids for anti-abortion votes in the primaries.

“They’ve gone so far out on the limb that they won’t be able to crawl back,” she said.

National polls over the years show the American public deeply divided on abortion. An Associated Press-GfK poll released Dec. 22 found 58 percent of U.S. adults saying abortion should be legal in most or all cases, and 39 percent saying it should be illegal in most or all cases. Forty-five percent viewed Planned Parenthood favorably; 30 percent unfavorably.

Abortion and Planned Parenthood are likely to surface as divisive issues in several of the races that will decide control of the Senate.

New Hampshire features an intriguing race between two women. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, a supporter of abortion rights, hopes to unseat GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte, who is endorsed by anti-abortion groups and favors halting Planned Parenthood’s federal funding.

Other key Senate races likely to feature sharp divisions over abortion include those in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin and the crucial presidential battleground of Ohio, where GOP incumbent Rob Portman is expected to be challenged by former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.

U.S. trails other nations in voter turnout

The “land of the free and the brave” ranks No. 31 among 34 democratic countries in an analysis of voter turnout by the Pew Research Center.

One contributing factor: U.S. citizens aren’t required to vote.

Pew examined the issue and found that the United States has the fourth worst turnout of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Corporation and Development, which includes highly developed, democratic states.

U.S. voter turnout was 53.6 percent in 2012, when the last nationwide election took place. In other OECD countries, Pew reported turnouts of 87.2 percent in Belgium, 86.4 percent in Turkey, 82.6 percent in Sweden. The lowest turnout was in Switzerland, at 40 percent.

Pew noted that voting is compulsory in Belgium and Turkey. Such laws aren’t always strictly enforced, but they do have an impact. Pew said three of the five nations with the highest turnouts require that citizens cast ballots.

Meanwhile, voter turnout in Chile plunged after the country abandoned compulsory voting in 2012 — from 87 percent in 2010 to 42 percent in 2013.

Pew noted in its research that in many OECD countries, the government adds names to the voter rolls when a citizen becomes eligible or seeks out and registers voters.

This is not the situation in the United States, where about 65 percent of the voting-age population is registered.

Federal appeals court upholds Texas anti-abortion restrictions

A federal appeals court this week upheld Texas’ strict abortion restrictions that could soon leave only seven abortion clinics open in a state of 27 million people.

The decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows Texas to enforce Republican-backed restrictions that require abortion clinics to meet hospital-level operating standards, a checklist that includes rules on minimum room sizes, staffing levels and air ventilation systems. The restrictions, approved in 2013, are among the toughest in the nation.

Owners of the abortion clinics say they would be forced to close because the new rules demand millions of dollars in upgrades they can’t afford. That would mark the second large wave of closures in as many years in Texas, which had 41 abortion clinics in 2012, before other new restrictions took effect that require doctor admitting privileges.

“Not since before Roe v. Wade has a law or court decision had the potential to devastate access to reproductive health care on such a sweeping scale,” said Nancy Northrop, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We now look to the Justices to stop the sham laws that are shutting clinics down and placing countless women at risk of serious harm.”

Texas will be able to start enforcing the restrictions in about three weeks unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to halt the decision, said Stephanie Toti, an attorney for the center. Only seven abortion facilities in Texas, including four operated by Planned Parenthood, meet the more robust requirements.

Abortion-rights groups said they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which temporarily sidelined the law last year.

If the law takes effect, some women in the state would live hundreds of miles away from a Texas abortion provider. But that argument didn’t sway the three-judge panel making the decision for the New Orleans-based appeals court, which is considered one of the most conservative in the nation. The judges noted that a New Mexico abortion clinic was just across the Texas border, and said clinic owners in Texas failed to prove that a “large fraction” of women would be burdened.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office argued before the appeals court in January, praised the ruling.

“Abortion practitioners should have no right to operate their businesses from sub-standard facilities and with doctors who lack admitting privileges at a hospital,” Paxton said.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and other conservatives say the standards protect women’s health. But abortion-rights supports say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to block access to abortions in Texas, which has been the site of one of the nation’s largest abortion fights for two years. Toti said roughly a half-dozen other states require similar standards for abortion clinics, but unlike in those states, the Texas law doesn’t allow clinics to be grandfathered or seek waivers.

About 18 abortion clinics are currently open in Texas, though the number fluctuates depending on whether a facility has a doctor with hospital admitting privileges.

Under the new restrictions, the only remaining abortion facilities in Texas would be in major cities. One exception would be a Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, near the Texas-Mexico border, which the 5th Circuit exempted from some restrictions – but Toti said even those exemptions are so limited that it may not be practical to keep that clinic open.

For women in El Paso, the closest abortion provider in Texas would require a 1,200-mile round trip to San Antonio, or they would have to cross state lines. The appeals court found that option suitable, noting that a clinic was just across the border in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

“Although the nearest abortion facility in Texas is 550 miles away from El Paso, there is evidence that women in El Paso can travel the short distance to Santa Teresa to obtain an abortion and, indeed, the evidence is that many did just that,” the court wrote.

Attorneys for the state also dismissed opponents’ arguments about women being burdened by fewer abortion facilities, saying that nearly 9 in 10 women in Texas would still live within 150 miles of a provider.

The restrictions are the same ones that Democrat Wendy Davis temporarily blocked with a 13-hour filibuster in the Texas Legislature in 2013, which attracted national attention and propelled her to an unsuccessful run for governor.

Tennessee House votes to make Bible official state book

The Tennessee state House ignored serious constitutional concerns — and the wishes of Republican leaders in the Statehouse — in voting to make the holy Bible the official state book.

The chamber approved the measure 55-38 on April 15. It is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton, a former pastor, who argued that his proposal reflects the Bible’s historical, cultural and economic impact in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s attorney general, Herbert Slatery, warned in a legal opinion earlier this week that the bill would violate separation of church and state provisions of both the federal and state constitutions.

Constitutional concerns raised over similar proposals in Mississippi and Louisiana caused lawmakers there to drop those measures in recent years. While Tennessee supporters acknowledged the likelihood of a lawsuit if the bill becomes law, several said it would be worth the expense.

“There are some things that are worth standing up for,” said Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican. “Markets, money and military are meaningless without morals. I think it’s time for our body to make a stand.”

Several lawmakers raised concerns about putting the Bible on par with innocuous state symbols such as the official salamander, tree and beverage.

“‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a book,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. “The Bible is the word of God, it’s a whole a whole different level.”

Supporters were dismissive of concerns raised during the floor debate.

“It’s not just a book,” Sexton said. “I base my life, my ministry and my family on this book.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss said if the Bible becomes the state book, people won’t be required to worship or follow Christianity.

“The dog and the cat are state symbols and nobody in Tennessee is required to purchase a dog or a cat,” the Republican said.

Sexton said nothing prevents other works to be named official state books alongside the Bible. Tennessee, after all, has several state songs, he said.

The measure would need to be approved by the Senate before heading to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who opposes it. The governor wouldn’t tell reporters whether he’d veto the measure.

Senate sponsor Steve Southland told the Citizen Tribune of Morristown that he expects the governor would allow the measure to become law without his signature. Haslam appeared surprised by Southerland’s prediction.

“He must be reading my mind somehow — or attempting to,” Haslam said. “That’s definitely not coming from us.”

Other prominent opponents of the measure include the Republican speakers of both chambers, Sen. Ron Ramsey and Beth Harwell, along with the Senate and House GOP leaders, Rep. Gerald McCormick and Sen. Mark Norris.

Norris told reporters it would be “a dark day for Tennessee” if the Senate approves the bill on April 16.

“All I know is that I hear Satan snickering, he loves this kind of mischief,” Norris said. “You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you.”

We can be heroes: In pursuit of equality in the courts

Eight same-sex couples — with a team of lawyers — committed earlier this year to overturn Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment barring gays and lesbians from the freedom to marry in the state. Their fight continues, but already their pursuit of equality has resulted in the marriages of at least 555 same-sex couples in Wisconsin.

“These families simply want the security and recognition that only marriage provides,” Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, had said when he filed the equality case in Madison in February. “They have built their lives and raised children here. It is wrong for the state to treat these loving and committed couples as second-class citizens, and it is cruel to place them in a catch-22 where they can’t even travel elsewhere to obtain federal protections without their marriage being labeled a crime.”

The couples’ attorneys, the state’s equal rights leaders and the gays and lesbians who hope to take marriage vows, have heralded the couples — Charvonne Kemp and Marie Carlson, Judith Trampf and Katharina Heyning, Roy Badger and Garth Wangemann, Johannes Wallmann and Keith Borden, Salud Garcia and Pam Kleiss, Kami Young and Karina Willes, Bill Hurtubise and Dean Palmer — as heroes.

“To be a plaintiff in a case like this, you have to put yourself out there and vow to see the fight through maybe all the way to the Supreme Court,” said April Goodmann, a Waukesha resident who when the case is settled for good hopes to marry her longtime girlfriend. “These people are heroes, plain and simple. They are my heroes.”

There now are hundreds of heroes serving as plaintiffs in more than 70 marriage equality cases pending in 31 states.

And there’s a long history of heroes who, with the support of groups such as the ACLU and Lambda Legal, challenged laws and regulations, changing the lives of LGBT people in housing and schools, in the Armed Forces and on the job, at the marriage license bureau and in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Most of them have been plaintiffs, but some have been defendants.

A look at just a handful of the many LGBT civil rights cases fought over the years and the legal activists involved in them:

• Jamie Nabozny. For four years, Nabozny was subjected to anti-gay verbal and physical abuse by students at his school in Ashland, Wisconsin. Students urinated on him, pretended to rape him during class and, in one assault, kicked him so many times in the stomach that he required surgery. Nabozny sued the school district and won in a federal appeals court in Chicago, which said in 1996 that public schools are obligated to protect students from anti-gay abuse. Nabozny, represented by Lambda, also won back in Wisconsin, where a jury in 1996 also found school officials liable.

• Richard G. Evans. Evans, an administrator in Denver, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Colorado’s Amendment 2, enacted by voters in 1992. The amendment barred governments in the state from enacting non-discrimination ordinances or policies that would protect gays. The state argued that Amendment 2 simply prohibited creating “special rights” for gays, but Evans et al., represented by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, argued the measure denied gays the right to participate in the political process. The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in 1996, said the amendment did not satisfy the Equal Protection Clause. The majority opinion said, “The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.”

• John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner. On Sept. 17, 1998, deputies in Harris County, Texas, were dispatched to an apartment expecting to deal with a “black male going crazy with a gun.” It was a false claim, called in to police by a jealous man. At the apartment, two deputies said they saw Lawrence and Garner engaged in sexual activity. They arrested the men for “deviate sex.” The two pleaded no contest before a justice of the peace, then appealed in Texas Criminal Court. Their case, managed by Lambda Legal, reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003 that sexual relationships between consenting adults are protected by the 14th Amendment.

• Ninia Baerhr and Genora Dancel. The women became the lead plaintiffs in Baehr v. Miike, the landmark lawsuit seeking the freedom to marry in Hawaii in the 1990s. Though state lawmakers and voters erected barriers to the plaintiffs securing that right in the 1990s, their case launched the marriage equality movement and resulted, way back in 1993, in the first high court ruling for gay marriage. Today, Hawaii is an equality state. 

• Edith Windsor. Windsor is the widow of Thea Clary Spyer and the executor of Spyer’s estate. The women married in Canada in 2007, two years before Spyer’s death, and their marriage was legal in the state of New York. But until last summer, the marriage was not recognized by the federal government, which imposed $363,000 in taxes on the estate left to Windsor. Windsor’s lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Section 3 in the Defense of Marriage Act and the full federal recognition of gay marriages.

• Miguel Brashi. Braschi and Leslie Blanchard lived together for 10 years in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, beginning in 1975. When Blanchard died in September 1986, the landlord threatened to evict Braschi, maintaining that he had no right to stay because Blanchard was the tenant of record. The 1989 case, Braschi v. Stahl, led the court to expand the definition of family in the city’s rent control regulations. The majority opinion said that protection against eviction “should not rest on fictitious legal distinctions or genetic history, but instead should find its foundation in the reality of family life.”

Choice advocates protest closure of 2 rural reproductive health clinics in Texas

Two reproductive health clinic closures were announced in rural Texas this week — shutdowns resulting from passage of the state’s House Bill 2. The clinics were the only reproductive health clinics in East Texas and the Rio Grande Valley and the closures disproportionately affect low-income women in the south and east of the state, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“The closure of Whole Women’s Health clinic is a tragedy for women in Texas and indicative of the cost when we allow politicians to use deceitful back-door tactics to rob us of our fundamental rights,” Ilyse Hogue, NARAL Pro-Choice America president said in a statement released late March 6. “The majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose the health care and reproductive options best for us, yet anti-choice lawmakers have run rough shod over that sentiment and now are endangering the lives of the state’s most vulnerable women.”

Nineteen clinics in Texas have closed since Texas lawmakers adopted new abortion restrictions last summer. Twenty-four clinics remain to serve a population of 26 million people, and more closures could happen after additional restrictions take effect later this year, according to The AP.

Lawmakers in HB 2 required all abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, all abortions to take place in a surgical facility and all women seeking abortion-inducing medications to make four clinical visits. Those rules made it impossible for the clinics in Beaumont and McAllen to stay open, Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, told the AP.

Heather Busby, the director of NARAL’s chapter in Texas, in a statement released on March 6, said, “Safe, legal options for women in need of abortion care are now non-existent in south and east Texas, and that is no accident. Anti-choice lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they pushed for the abortion restrictions in HB2 and these clinic closures are exactly the result they were seeking.”

Secretary of State Kerry deeply concerned by Nigeria’s new anti-gay law

Secretary of State John Kerry on Jan. 13 responded with deep concern to news that Nigeria had enacted the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act.

Kerry, in 1996, was one of just 14 U.S. senators to vote against the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act — anti-gay legislation that was partially overturned by the Supreme Court last June.

In a statement issued on Jan. 13, the secretary said, “The United States is deeply concerned by Nigeria’s enactment of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. Beyond even prohibiting same-sex marriage, this law dangerously restricts freedom of assembly, association, and expression for all Nigerians.”

He continued, “Moreover, it is inconsistent with Nigeria’s international legal obligations and undermines the democratic reforms and human rights protections enshrined in its 1999 Constitution.

“People everywhere deserve to live in freedom and equality. No one should face violence or discrimination for who they are or who they love. We join with those in Nigeria who appeal for the protection of their fellow citizens’ fundamental freedoms and universal human rights.”

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed the measure into law, months after lawmakers passed the bill. Under the law, people who engage in same-sex “amorous relationships” or join gay rights groups could be sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Liberty and libraries: Observing Banned Books Week

The American Library Association has tracked challenges to more than 11,300 books in the 30 years since Banned Books Week was launched to respond to a surge in efforts to remove materials from libraries, classrooms and even bookstores.

In most cases, the challenge to a book comes from a parent.

And the No. 1 reason cited for a challenge? “Sexually explicit” material. “Offensive language,” “unsuited to an age group,” “violence” and “homosexuality” also prompt challenges, according to the ALA. In 2012, challengers took aim at a range of books, including “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s book about two male penguins Roy and Silo raising a baby chick in New York’s Central Park Zoo.

On Sept. 22, the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies and the UW-M Center for Immigration Policy Research partners with the Milwaukee Public Library to kick off Banned Books Week by hosting Barbara Jones of the American Library Association. Jones, the director of the group’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, will participate in “Canaries in the Coal Mine: How Libraries Fight for Fee Speech, Freedom from Surveillance and Democratic Values,” at 6 p.m. at the MPL, 733 N. Eighth St.

The ACLU of Wisconsin observes Banned Books Week with a meet-and-greet and First Amendment forum at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St., Milwaukee, at 6 p.m. on Sept. 25. An after-party takes place at Riverwest Public House, 815 E. Locust St., Milwaukee. Stop by with a paperback copy of “Howl” in the hip pocket.