We cannot afford to be passive on reproductive freedom

Women have an inalienable right to make autonomous and independent decisions about their bodies and their reproductive choices in consultation with their physicians. As demonstrated yesterday once again, this right is under constant assault across the United States at this moment by lawmakers and reactionary extremists.

It is no longer sufficient for those who make and execute our laws to maintain an ambivalence or passivity on the question of access to this vital, lifesaving healthcare. It has not been sufficient ever since the Stupak Amendment made clear in 2009 that the cause of reproductive freedom was under assault and that the other side was significantly more prepared. Our officials, at every level, must defend that right vigorously against all infringements and impediments, whether by individuals or policymakers. That right covers both abortion services and contraceptive methods, as well as impartial counseling and prenatal health services.

Our officials should also seek to ensure an equality of access to this right for all women (or any members of our society who can get pregnant), regardless of means or circumstance. They should also secure the right for all people to obtain health care without private interference or intimidation.

What is the debate about Planned Parenthood really about?

Hint: it’s certainly not about science.

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Since the release of five highly doctored videos of Planned Parenthood executives appearing to sell fetuses, much has been said about Planned Parenthood and the women who use their services. However, few people appear to have asked “Who was buying fetal tissue and why?” Little attention has been paid to the importance of research on fetal tissue and the typically bipartisan support that this research receives. (Even Senator Mitch McConnell, now spearheading the effort to defund Planned Parenthood, voted to support the donation of fetal tissue from abortions in 1993.)

On July 29, 2015, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards sent a much-ignored letter to the director of the National Institute of Health. She wrote:

“It has become clear in the ensuing public debate … that there is widespread confusion about fetal tissue research and that government officials, medical researchers, health care providers, and the public could benefit from a review of the research and the procedures surrounding it by an independent expert panel. The last time such a review occurred was in 1988 during the Reagan Administration. We believe it may be time for another expert panel to examine these issues in light of the advancements achieved in medicine over the past 27 years.”

 
The 1988 panel to which Richards refers was overseen by a conservative judge opposed to abortion. Nonetheless, “a decisive majority of the panel found that it was acceptable public policy to support transplant research with fetal tissue.” The panel even concluded that aborted fetuses were acceptable donations to the medical community, so long as the decision to abort a fetus and decisions regarding the time or method of abortion were not interfered with in order to collect the tissue.

Fetal tissue is no longer a central focus of transplant research, but remains important for many other kinds of medical discovery, including the study of birth defects, genetic causes of diseases, and even possible cures for degenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s Disease. Researchers at MIT are even able to use fetal tissue to implant the human immune system into mice, allowing them to study tumors and human responses without using human test subjects.

Fetal tissue has a long history of being incredibly valuable in the medical field, most notably in the development of vaccines. In the mid-1960’s, an aborted fetus allowed researchers to isolate the Rubella virus and develop the vaccine for the deadly disease which is still used today. The researcher central to this discovery, Stanley Plotkin, spoke out:

“Human fetal cell strains, derived from voluntary abortions, have been extremely important for vaccine development, specifically for rabies, rubella, hepatitis A, and chicken pox. It is important to understand that the cell [lines] are stored and no new abortions are done to produce those vaccines.”

 
(The last line is presumably meant to clarify that the fetal cells are used only in the research and development phase, not the actual manufacture of the developed vaccines. –Ed.)

Richards’ letter to the NIH explains the limited, but important role that Planned Parenthood plays in fetal tissue donation. Planned Parenthood exists in all 50 states, but currently, in only five states are women able to donate tissue through Planned Parenthood. She writes:

“We participate in fetal tissue donation and occasionally partner in research not because this research is a core part of our mission, but because we are supporters of medical research and serve women who chose to make donations.”

 
In an editorial published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the influential journal threw their full support behind Planned Parenthood and their work:

“We strongly support Planned Parenthood not only for its efforts to channel fetal tissue into important medical research but also for its other work as one of the country’s largest providers of health care for women, especially poor women. The contraception services that Planned Parenthood delivers may be the single greatest effort to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that result in abortions…We thank the women who made the choice to help improve the human condition through their tissue donation; we applaud the people who make this work possible and those who use these materials to advance human health.”

 
An opinion piece in the Washington Post this week brought into light the similarities between the policies of Planned Parenthood and the donations of fertilized embryos by in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. The author, Margo Kaplan, an associate professor at Rutgers Law School, believes that one of the biggest differences between perceptions of the two donations is which women are making the donation.

Women who donate through the IVF clinic are women who want to become mothers and have waited a long time to get the treatment. (Oh, and they are typically white and wealthy.) Those women who decide to end a pregnancy at a Planned Parenthood clinic are admonished by society for their “irresponsible lifestyles” and unwillingness to become mothers at the moment.

It seems to me that if the outrage that has continued to smolder since the public viewing of these doctored videos was truly over the use sale of fertilized embryos and the use of fetal tissue in research, people would be talking about those things. (GOP Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson himself used fetal tissue in research, but claims that since the specimen was already dead when he used it, he is in no way in the wrong.) Instead, once again, it appears that the target of the public’s thinly-veiled outcry is actually the women who use the services of Planned Parenthood.

Scott Walker: Abortion is between you, your doctor, and me

Scott Walker and family at his 2016 presidential campaign announcement. (Credit: WisPolitics.com / Flickr)

Scott Walker and family at his 2016 presidential campaign announcement. (Credit: WisPolitics.com / Flickr)

Flippy-floppy Scott Walker just signed a 20-weeks abortion ban bill in Wisconsin. One the one hand, it’s fully consistent with his overall views:

Walker’s record includes defunding Planned Parenthood, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a law currently blocked by a federal court judge, and requiring women to have ultrasounds and be shown images of the fetus before having an abortion.

 
On the other hand, he refused to give a position during the 2014 campaign on the type of ban he just signed and even went as far as to put out a very misleading ad:

Just nine months ago he ran a television ad during his gubernatorial re-election campaign where he said whether to obtain an abortion is an agonizing decision between a woman and her doctor.

 
Apparently, he meant to say, it’s a “decision between a woman and her doctor” and her state legislature and her governor / native-son presidential candidate.

But he’s the leading choice of “conservative” Republican voters, so, guess he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and really get himself right up in there.

July 15, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 134

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.

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Topics: Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality and Obamacare, order on Texas abortion clinics law; Puerto Rico and Greece debt crises. People: Bill, Kelley, and Nate. Produced: July 13th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– U.S. Supreme Court: What are the implications of major rulings and orders on marriage equality, Obamacare, and reproductive freedom?
– Debt Crises: What’s next for Puerto Rico and Greece?

Episode 134 (47 min):
AFD 134

Related Links

AFD by Kelley: “The Supreme Court Order You May Have Missed”
AFD by Bill: “Marriage Equality Day”
AFD by Bill: “A Sinking Feeling in Puerto Rico”
AFD Posts about Greece

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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

The Supreme Court order you may have missed

The Supreme Court’s rulings two weeks ago on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality have had a profound and immediate effect on Americans. But so has the Court’s less-discussed order to delay the implementation of a Texas law that would have effectively shut down all but ten Texas abortion clinics, leaving nearly one million women at least 150 miles away from their closest abortion clinic.

Map of 60-mile radius access limits around Texas abortion clinics, under the suspended law. (Credit: @MetricMaps / Wikimedia)

Map of 60-mile radius access limits around remaining Texas abortion clinics, under the suspended law, versus female population density. (Credit: @MetricMaps / Wikimedia)

The Texas law in question initially grabbed the nation’s attention thanks to a pair of pink sneakers and State Senator Wendy Davis, whose passionate filibuster lasted long enough to avoid the passage of the bill…for the day. Despite Senator Davis’s efforts, the bill passed in July 2013, as part of a second special session, by a margin of 19-11.

The first part of the bill took effect 90 days after it’s passage; it prohibited abortions after 20 weeks and required all doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.  The Supreme Court’s order delays implementation of the second part of the bill, which requires all abortion clinics to meet the standards of an “ambulatory surgical center” – a set of stringent regulations on staffing, equipment, and the building itself.

Fund Texas Choice notes that 14 of Texas 36 abortion clinics closed due to the provision requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and only 10 clinics currently meet the standard of an ambulatory surgical center.

Some Texas lawmakers insist that these changes are designed to protect women’s health, while opponents have deemed it a thinly veiled effort to restrict a woman’s right to choose in the Lone Star State.

Abortion is an extremely safe medical procedure.  A recent study in Obstetrics and Gynecology notes that women are 14 times more likely to die during or after childbirth than from abortion.  In fact, in 2010, only 1 in 625 women who received in abortion at Planned Parenthood required an emergency room visit or blood transfusion.  Still, Texas is one of 24 states that the Guttmacher Institute reports has regulations that go beyond what is medically necessary for patient safety.

The Supreme Court order is only temporary, however, and will expire if the Court decides not to hear the case during their 2015 season.

It is still unclear if the Court will hear this case, but if they do, a woman’s right to choose is sure to be in the crosshairs of the 2016 presidential election, and rightfully so: the problem is a lot bigger than Texas, as the other 23 states with similarly restrictive laws proves.

Despite the fact that half of Americans identified as pro-choice in a May 2015 Gallup Poll, states across the country continue to enact abortion restrictions in record numbers.  During the years of 2011-2014, states passed 231 restrictions on abortions, limiting access to safe abortions from sea to shining sea.  To put that in perspective, 189 restrictions had been passed in the ten years previous.

The increasingly stringent regulations on abortion access make it clear that women need a champion to protect the rights afforded to them by the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.  That champion may come from the Supreme Court, or we may need to change the tide of state politicians.

This Texas law and the drastic effect it has on the number of abortion clinics in the state calls into focus the severity of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion and the reality that they effectively limit access to safe abortions for many American women.

Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi addresses social issues

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist democratic party Ennahda and one of the leading practical theorists of Islamic democracy outside Turkey, continues to make the rounds with European interviewers (see previous link for more). This time he gave interviews to French journalist Olivier Ravanello for a book called “On the Subject of Islam.”

While past interviews have often focused on political or economic theory questions, the book’s pull quotes on social issues have made more waves this time (at least in the relevant, Francophone circles).

Unfortunately, because the interviews were published in French and Ghannouchi’s not an extremely high-profile person if you don’t follow this topic regularly like I do, I’m guessing it’s not getting much play yet in English-language media. The quotes are collected in the French-language Tunisian edition of Huffington Post.

He states perhaps a problematic view on some issues like blasphemy laws or inheritance rights, but made interestingly pragmatic comments on abortion & homosexuality for a relatively conservative region (though Tunisia is more liberal than the region in general). I did the translations below myself and converted idiomatic phrasing where appropriate, so these are not 1:1 translations.

Quotes on homosexuality, in principle and from a legal perspective:

“We don’t approve of it. But Islam doesn’t spy on people. It preserves privacy. Everyone lives his life as he wants to, and everyone is responsible before his creator… The law does not follow people into their private lives. … What happens in your house concerns nobody. It is your choice, and nobody has the right to enter and ban you from doing this or that.”

 
This would be an improvement over existing laws in Tunisia, which the Huffington Post article says criminalized homosexuality and can result in a three-year prison sentence. Unfortunately, Mr. Ghannouchi’s own party refused to change the law when it controlled the Human Rights and Justice Ministry during the national transition.

On the former, he endorses contraception as legitimate for women to prevent pregnancy; abortion in the first 4 (maybe 5) months, i.e. “before the development of the fetus” is possibly morally permissible. After that he opposes it on principle as an “aggression against life.” According to the Huffington Post article, this is consistent with the Tunisian law allowing abortion in the first 3 months for any reason — and for physical or mental health reasons thereafter.

Essentially, Ghannouchi’s view on abortion is approximately in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s view in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, wherein viability was estimated to be as early as 22 weeks and states could potentially ban or severely restrict it after that… But his contraception view is a lot more pragmatic than that of many U.S. Republicans.

Beyond the Senate: The 2014 state losses

Certain people of this country have realized that their true political power lies in their local governments. The states and counties that they reside in have lots of power thanks to the 10th amendment, and by golly they intend to use it to the fullest extent.

This November, not only did the Republicans shellack the Democrats on a national level, they improved their ground game and hit them where it hurts. Jill Lawrence, writing for Al Jazeera America, recaps:

Republicans took over 11 state legislative chambers that had been held by Democrats. They now control 23 states entirely — governor and both legislative chambers — versus seven for Democrats. They netted three new governors for a total of 31, versus 18 for Democrats. They gained more than 300 legislators and now hold the most state legislative seats since 1920.

 

Map of 2014 United States state legislature election results, comparing partisan control of the legislative chambers and governor's office in each state. (Credit: ArsenalForDemocracy.com) Note: Alaska's governor is an independent.

Map of 2014 United States state legislature election results, comparing partisan control of the legislative chambers and governor’s office in each state. (Click map for full-sized view.) Note: Alaska’s governor is an independent.

The significance of these gains is two-fold. First, implementing policy on a national level is difficult when it means communicating and negotiating with Republican dominated state houses. Landmark legislation like the Affordable Care Act depends on cooperation of the states. 25 states didn’t expand Medicaid as a part of the ACA, essentially making the law useless for the low-income uninsured.

Similarly, any hope for increasing the minimum wage in individual states rather than nationwide will be impossible in states with the Republican held legislatures. State Republicans that continue to base their decisions on party politics instead of the needs of the people are sure to face repercussions later down the road, but for now they have other intentions.

Which brings me to my second point. These newly elected Republican legislatures and governors will no doubt pass questionable legislation, as they have done in the past. In 2013, North Carolina tried to establish Christianity as their state religion, until someone realized that would be totally unconstitutional. Michigan lawmakers extended gun owners the right to conceal and carry in daycares, but it was vetoed by the Republican Governor a few days after the Sandy Hook shootings. And Tennessee attempted to pass a bill that would cut low-income families’ welfare if their children received poor grades in school.

State legislatures fly under the radar of most people, but local advocates have been able to push their agenda through these state houses. Based on their recent track record, the new Republican majorities will inevitably bring a fresh onslaught of anti-abortion laws to states that have already restricted a woman’s right to choose, as well as to new states. Laws that would clearly never make it through a national Congress, are snaking through the states and slowly but surely making it more difficult for a woman to have fair access to an abortion.

Issues like this are where some people have realized their true potential as voters. Local laws reflect local attitudes. And despite the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, local attitudes will continue to work towards limiting, and potentially barring, access to legal abortions.

So as concerning as it may be for Democrats that they lost control of the U.S. Senate, focus should instead be on the amount of power Republicans now hold in the states. And most importantly, how they intend to use that power.