Pennsylvania for Women’s Health Agenda Update

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women's Health

Logo for the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health

Last September, a bicameral, bipartisan caucus was created in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to review, discuss, and propose legislation to improve the health of women in the Commonwealth by addressing the genuine needs and concerns of women in the state. The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health was created as a comprehensive plan to address the real-life stories and concerns of women in terms of protecting and expanding women’s reproductive health, improving women’s economic security, and improving safety in their lives.

The First Set of Bills

On December 11, the first five bills were presented and introduced into both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first set of bills addressed a variety of concerns for women by:

  • Making sure that women receive pregnancy accommodations in their workplace;
  • Creating a 15-foot buffer zone around entrances to health to make sure women seeking reproductive healthcare are able to access it in an orderly and safe manner;
  • Addressing “pay secrecy” and the “factor other than sex” loophole will help to end practices that have enabled employers to pay women less than men for the same work;
  • Expanding access to cervical cancer treatment. This bill is a state Pay Equity bill similar to the federal Paycheck Fairness Act;
  • Eliminating local ordinances that penalize landlords and/or tenants who call the police or emergency services “too frequently;” and
  • Outlawing “revenge porn,” a form of digital intimate-partner violence.

Of the first six set of bills, four have had some movement since my first detailed look at the bills on January 22.

Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act

The House version of the Pennsylvania Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act (HB 1892) was formally introduced and referred to the House Labor and Industry Committee where it is still awaiting a hearing. The companion Senate bill (SB 1209) was introduced on March 31 and was referred to the Senate Labor and Industry Committee; it too is awaiting its first hearing.

Pay Equity

The Pay Equity Bill basically hasn’t moved since being introduced. The House version (HB 1890) was introduced and referred to House Labor and Industry Committee on February 19. The Senate version (SB 1209) was introduced and referred to Senate Labor and Industry Committee on March 31; it has not moved since its introduction. However, the House sponsors of HB 1890 have filed a “Resolution to discharge committee from further consideration.” This was filed on April 7. This type of resolution is a rarely used tactic to force debate on a bill when the chair of the committee the bill is assigned to refuses to hold hearings on the bill. We are now waiting to see how the full House will respond to this resolution.

Victims of Crime

The bill protecting victims of crime by eliminating local ordinances that penalize landlords and/or tenants who call the police or emergency services “too frequently” (HB 1796) was introduced on October 22. After its introduction, the House Local Government Committee amended the bill to clarify that bill only applies to cases that involve victims of violence, abuse, or “individuals in an emergency” if the person making the call had a reasonable belief that police intervention or emergency assistance was needed. It unanimously passed House January 14, 2014. It was then referred to Senate Local Government Committee. January 21, 2014. Unfortunately, on March 11 the Senate Local Government Committee was tacked on an ALEC bill as an amendment, turning this good bill into a bad bill. This local ordinance sick-leave preemption bill undermines the safety of domestic violence victims. Under the amendment, local governments would lose their authority to require employers to offer paid or unpaid leave to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Leave from employment is often critical to a victim’s survival in both the short- and long-term. This amendment adds another purpose and intent to HB 1796 that conflicts with its original commitment to protect victims. Advocates, including but not limited to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Women’s Law Project, and Pennsylvania NOW, are urging the legislature to support the version of HB 1796 that was passed by the House of Representatives and to remove the problematic language that was adopted in Senate Local Government Committee. We still support the portion of HB 1796 that would eliminate local nuisance ordinances that penalize a victim for seeking help from emergency services. As a result of our subsequent lobbying to remove this amendment, the Senate has temporarily tabled the bill.

Revenge Porn Prohibition

The “Revenge Porn” bill is the most successful of this first round of bills. The Senate version (SB 1167) was amended in Senate Judiciary Committee January 14, 2014 and sent to the floor for 1st consideration. It unanimously passed the Senate on January 28, 2014 and is now residing in the House Judiciary Committee alongside HB 1901.

The Second Set of Bills

Today, the Women’s Health Agenda Caucus announced the second package of bills to be introduced. They include five bills intended to:

  • Curb political interference in providers’ medical decisions. This bill protects the doctor-patient relationship from directives to practice care in a manner that is not in accordance with standards of care;
  • Identify gaps in health care for women veterans by establishing the Task Force on Women Veterans’ Health Care to study health issues facing women veterans;
  • Fight deep poverty among women with children. This bill Includes a study of family work support programs in the Commonwealth, increases the monthly Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits for women in need; and increases in the TANF Earned Income Disregard;
  • Ensure that widows of state and municipal employees get fair pensions by requiring public employees to obtain spousal consent for benefit payment structures that do not provide at least a 50% survivor benefit; and
  • Protect all employees against sexual harassment by extending the prohibition on sexual harassment to all employers in the state.

Pennsylvania NOW is one of the organizations supporting this full agenda to improve women’s health. I am their lobbyist. At the press conference this morning, I handed out our statement of support. In that statement, I supported each of these bills, saying, “It’s high time that doctors were supported in their right to refuse to provide medically inaccurate information. The increases to TANF cash assistance grant levels and the eligibility asset limit will encourage saving and financial independence. We’re also glad to see sexual harassment protections extended to all workers, and see that female veteran’s health concerns finally get the attention it deserves.”

As advocates for women’s health and equity we are pleased to see the legislature taking a pro-active stance to help improve the lives of women here in Pennsylvania. As Caryn Hunt said in the Pennsylvania NOW press release, ““The women of Pennsylvania need – and now finally have – champions in the legislature who recognize that government must work for all of the people, women included.” We are pleased and “strongly support this Agenda that puts the health and well-being of women and their families first.”

(note: The bill numbers associated with each of these bills will be announced on this blog as soon as I know what they are or will be.)

 

Urge Senate to Pass Military Justice Improvement Act

I received an email today from the National NOW Action Center regarding Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act.  I pulled the text of the email and then rearranged and edited it to provide you with information about the bill and what you can do.  The bill is expected to soon come up for a vote in the US Senate, possibly as soon as this coming week.

Background

The Military Justice Improvement Act (S. 967), if passed into law, would establish an independent, objective and unbiased military justice system to better respond to the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military.

Military leaders have been claiming since 1992 that there will be “zero tolerance” of sexual assault, yet there were 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual touching that were reported in FY 2012.  It is clear that the current system of military “justice” does not work and must be changed.

Our major allies, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Israel along with many other nations, years ago moved disposition of sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command to be handled independently by trained prosecutors. The U.S. should do the same.

Take Action

Your email message and your call – yes, please call your senators – could make the critical difference.  It is likely to be a close vote and senators need to hear from the grassroots that we demand justice for survivors.  It is a broken system that will remain broken unless Congress requires a fundamental reform of the process.

Please make that call today: tell them you want an independent, objective and unbiased military justice system that deals promptly and effectively with all reports of sexual crimes.

This link will take you to NOW’s action alert page where you can enter your zip code.  The website will then list your two Senators, their address, phone number and fax number. It also gives you a formulated email.  So there are five ways you can contact your Senator. I’m listing them from 1 to 5 with 1 being what I believe would have the most impact in a timely fashion:

  1. Call your Senators.
  2. Craft your own letter and fax it to both Senators
  3. Use the formulated email, personalize it on the website and submit it; It will be forwarded to both of your Senator’s in-boxes. Your email will have more clout if you personalize it with your own words.
  4. Just fill out the email address info and submit without making any changes to the email letter.
  5. Craft your own letter and mail it through the US Postal Service.  Although this has a lot of clout, it is very slow due to the high level of mail security used for Congress.  So it may or may not get there in time for your Senators and their staff to read before the vote.

Following each Senator’s name is their DC phone number in case you want to call without going to the NOW website.  When you do call, be sure to give the person answering the phone your name, address, and that you want your Senator to vote yes on S. 967, the Military Justice Improvement Act.  Then tell them why you support this bill.

Who’s on Board, Leaning, or Unknown

According to NOW the following are the Senators who have already signed on and/or are the most likely to vote for the bill.  If your Senator(s) are not listed here, they may be are harder sell for a “yes” vote, but it’s still worth a try.  The Senators listed below still need to hear from you so that they stay on the right side (“YES”) of the vote on S. 769.  Some are sponsors, some are leaning yes, and the rest on this list are unknown (sitting on the fence), but could be persuaded if they hear from constituents.

Before most of the names, you will see either a + (plus sign), an * (asterisk), or a # (pound sign).  These are keys to how they voted on S.967 in committee and on their votes on the 2013 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).   A plus sign means they are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and they voted for S.967 when it was in committee.  An asterisk means that they both sponsored and voted for the 2013 version of VAWA. A pound sign means they didn’t sponsor, but did vote for the 2013 version of VAWA.

And here’s the target list.

Primary Targets

Note: All phone numbers are in Area Code 202. The letters and numbers immediately after the state identification but before the phone numbers refers to their office address (building and room number) in DC:

  • SD =Dirksen Senate Office Building Washington DC 20510;
  • SH = Hart Senate Office Building Washington DC 20510; and
  • SR = Russell Senate Office Building Washington DC 20510.

Most likely Yes on Sponsorship/Support: (33)

  1. #ALEXANDER, Lamar (R-TN) SD-455  224-4944
  2. BARRASSO, John (R-WY) SD-307 224-6441
  3. BAUCUS, Max (D-MT) SH-511 224-2651
  4. BOOZMAN, John (R-AR) SH-320 224-4843
  5. BROWN, Sherrod (D-OH) SH-713 224-2315
  6. #BURR, Richard (R-NC) SR-217 224-3154
  7. CHIESA, Jeff (R-NJ) SR-C1 224-3224
  8. #COATS, Daniel (R-IN) SR-493 224-5623
  9. COBURN, Tom (R-OK) SR-172 224-5754
  10. CORNYN, John (R-TX) SH-517 224-2934
  11. *CRAPO, Mike (R-ID) SD-239 224-6142
  12. DURBIN, Richard J. (D-IL) SH-711  224-2152
  13. ENZI, Michael B. (R-WY) SR-379A  224-3424
  14. HATCH, Orrin G. (R-UT) SH-104  224-5251
  15. *HELLER, Dean (R-NV) SH-324  224-6244
  16. #ISAKSON, Johnny (R-GA) SR-131  224-3643
  17. JOHNSON, Ron (R-WI) SH-328  224-5323
  18. LANDRIEU, Mary L. (D-LA) SH-703  224-5824
  19. LEE, Mike (R-UT) SH-316  224-5444
  20. McCONNELL, Mitch (R-KY) SR-317  224-2541
  21. *MORAN, Jerry (R-KS) SR-361A  224-6521
  22. MURRAY, Patty (D-WA) SR-154  224-2621
  23. MURPHY, Christopher (D-CT) SH-303  224-4041
  24. #PORTMAN, Rob (R-OH) SR-448 4-3353
  25. REID, Harry (D-NV) SH-522  224-3542
  26. RISCH, James E. (R-ID) SR-48 3 224-2752
  27. ROBERTS, Pat (R-KS) SH-109  224-4774 –s
  28. RUBIO, Marco (R-FL) SR-284  224-3041
  29. #SHELBY, Richard C. (R-AL) SR-304 224-5744
  30. TESTER, Jon (D-MT) SH-706  224-2644
  31. #TOOMEY, Patrick J. (R-PA) SR-248 224-4254
  32. WARNER, Mark R. (D-VA) SR-475  224-2023
  33. WHITEHOUSE, Sheldon (D-RI) SH-530  224-2921

Voted for Gillibrand in Armed Services Committee (3)

  1. +DONNELLY, Joe (D-IN) SH-720 224-4814
  2. +HAGAN, Kay R. (D-NC) SD-521  224-6342
  3. +UDALL, Mark (D-CO) SH-730  224-5941

Secondary Targets: Armed Services  committee members who voted NO on S.967 in committee but could/should change their mind and support (3)

  1. KAINE, Tim (D-VA) SR-388  224-4024
  2. KING, Jr., Angus S. (I-ME) SD-359 224-5344
  3. MANCHIN III, Joe (D-WV) SH-306 224-3954

Additional Targets for Support

Democrats not on the bill who voted for VAWA (note: All Dems voted for 2013 VAWA) (6)

  1. KLOBUCHAR, Amy (D-MN) SH-302 224-3244
  2. LEVIN, Carl (D-MI) SR-269  224-6221
  3. McCASKILL, Claire (D-MO) SH-506 224-6154
  4. NELSON, Bill (D-FL) SH-716  224-5274
  5. REED, Jack (D-RI) SH-728 224-4642
  6. STABENOW, Debbie (D-MI) SH-133 224-4822

Republicans who sponsored and/or voter for VAWA 2013 (9):

  1. *AYOTTE, Kelly (R-NH) SR-144  224-3324
  2. #CHAMBLISS, Saxby (R-GA) SR-416  224-3521
  3. #COCHRAN, Thad (R-MS) SD-113  224-5054
  4. #CORKER, Bob (R-TN) SD-425  224-3344
  5. #FISCHER, Deb (R-NE) SR-383 224-6551
  6. #FLAKE, Jeff (R-AZ) SR-368 22 4-4521
  7. #HOEVEN, John (R-ND) SR-338 224-2551
  8. #McCAIN, John (R-AZ) SR-241 224-2235
  9. #WICKER, Roger F. (R-MS) SD-555  224-6253

Unknown (6)

  1.  BLUNT, Roy (R-MO) SR-260  224-5721
  2. GRAHAM, Lindsey (R-SC) SR-290 224-5972
  3. INHOFE, James M. (R-OK) SR-205 224-4721
  4. SCOTT, Tim (R-SC) SR-167 224-6121
  5. SESSIONS, Jeff (R-AL) SR-326 224-4124
  6. THUNE, John (R-SD) SD-511 224-2321

Good luck with your calls, faxes, letters, and emails.  If you hear something concrete from your Senators as to how they might vote, please come back and let us know in the comment section of this blog.  Thanks!

When Men Murder Women: The Violence Policy Center 2013 Report

Picture of Joanne Tosti-Vasey standing with sign that says "I AM Ending Violence"

Joanne Tosti-Vasey “Refusing to be Silent” and calling for an end to gender-based violence

The following is a guest blog originally published here by Jerin Arifa, with an acknowledgement to Patricia Reuss for staying on top of this issue and sending the report to us.

Jerin serves with me on the board of directors for the National Organization for Women (NOW) and chairs NOW’s Young Feminist Task Force.

Patricia is the “godmother” of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), having worked very closely with now Vice-President Joe Biden when he authored the original VAWA back in 1994.  She describes herself as “a longtime women’s rights activist pretending to be retired and currently serving as a policy adviser to NOW and the National Task Force [to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women].”

Earlier this year, Pat wrote a guest blog for me on the Violence Against Women Act. It focused on a watered-down version of VAWA introduced by Republican legislators that fortunately failed and was replaced by a strong re-authorization bill signed into law by President Obama on Women’s Equality Day last March. Thank you Pat for all you do for women’s lives.

Here’s Jerin’s guest blog:

The Violence Policy Center has released their annual report, When Men Murder Women, in advance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The study reports the statistics for females murdered by males, and includes a list of the top ten states with the highest homicide rates.

Some key findings:

  1. For homicides in which the victim to offender relationship could be identified, 94 percent of female victims were murdered by someone they knew. Compared to a man, a woman is far more likely to be killed by her spouse, an intimate acquaintance, or a family member than by a stranger.
  2. For homicides in which the weapon used could be identified, 51 percent of female victims were shot and killed with guns. Of these, 73 percent were killed with handguns.
  3. The number of females shot and killed by their husband or intimate acquaintance was more than five times higher than the total number murdered by male strangers using all weapons combined in single victim/single offender incidents
  4. For homicides in which the circumstances could be identified, 87 percent were not related to the commission of any other felony, such as rape or robbery.
  5. Of these, 60 percent involved arguments between the victim and the offender.
  6. For homicides in which the age of the victim was reported, 8 percent were less than 18 years old and 10 percent were 65 years of age or older. The average age was 39 years old.
  7. Owning a gun doesn’t protect women. Females living with a gun in the home were nearly three times more likely to be murdered than females with no gun in the home.
  8. A gun in the home is a key factor in the escalation of nonfatal spousal abuse to homicide. In one study, firearm-associated family and intimate assaults were 12 times more likely to result in death than non-firearm associated assaults between family and intimates.
  9. Women who were murdered were more likely, not less likely, to have purchased a handgun in the three years prior to their deaths, again invalidating the idea that a handgun has a protective effect against homicide.
  10. While firearms are at times used by private citizens to kill criminals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the most common scenarios of lethal gun use in America in 2010, the most recent final data available, are suicide (19,392), homicide (11,078), or fatal unintentional injury (606).
  11. South Carolina was followed by Alaska and Oklahoma as the states with the highest homicide rates for women.

Montana and Pennsylvania NOW File Judicial Conduct Complaint Against Judge G. Todd Baugh

Today (September 24) at noon MDT, Marian Bradley, President of Montana NOW delivered a complaint to the Montana Judicial Standards Commission calling for the removal of Judge G. Todd Baugh and requesting that the Montana Court System require mandatory sexual-assault training of all judicial employees.

This complaint was created over the last 3 weeks or so by Montana NOW and Pennsylvania NOW, with the assistance of the Women’s Law Project and Legal Momentum.  Marian Bradley, President of MT NOW and I, in my capacity as a member of the Executive Committee of PA NOW worked very closely with Lynn Hecht Schafran, Director of Legal Momentum’s National Judicial Education Program and Carol Tracy, Executive Director; Susan Frietsche, Senior Attorney; and Terry Fromson, Managing Attorney at the Women’s Law Project.  These four women assisted us in crafting the legal wording for this complaint.  We thank them their knowledge and assistance.

We would also like to thank We are Ultra Violet and Fitzgibbon Media for their participation in this effort.  We are so grateful to Ultra Violet for their work in gathering signatures for their petition and sharing those names with us and for the time, energy and unending support they have given us. And our thanks to Fitzgibbon Media for their help with scheduling media, press releases and all things media related.

The complaint focuses on Judge G. Todd Baugh’s judicial mishandling of a highly publicized rape case, his statements blaming the victim, and his failure to follow state law in sentencing Stacey Rambold who plead guilty to one count of sexual intercourse without consent of a 14-year old Hispanic girl who later died from suicide.

In the complaint, we present the background of the case, a summary of Judge G. Todd Baugh’s misconduct, cite the portions of the judicial rules of conduct that were violated, and cite thousands of witnesses.  These witnesses include more than 250,000 people around the world who are calling for either a resignation or removal of Judge Baugh (see here, here, here, and here for the wordings of the four on-line petitions), media reports from two prominent journalists (here and here), and 350 sexual assault survivors who signed a letter calling for the removal of Judge Baugh.  The complaint was delivered to the Commission with copies of the signatures of the petition signers, the letter from the sexual assault survivors, and links to the two news articles condemning Judge Baugh’s actions.

The following is a copy of the complaint that we filed:

Judicial Standards Commission State of Montana COMPLAINT Re: Judge G. Todd Baugh filed September 24, 2013 by Montana NOW and Pennsylvania NOW

Marian Bradley standing next to the boxes of signed petitions calling for the removal of Judge G. Todd Baugh from the bench.

Marian Bradley, President of Montana NOW speaking at the delivery of the NOW complaint to the MT Judicial Standards Commission.

Note that under Montana state law, once a complaint is filed, all proceedings remain confidential unless the matter is referred to the Montana Supreme Court for potential judicial disciplinary action.  So unless the state’s Supreme Court becomes involved, the public will not know the results of our complaint.  But meanwhile you can see what we are demanding.

And a last-minute addition. On Monday afternoon, September 23, Marian Bradley talked to the Montana Attorney General’s office (Tim Fox-R is the AG). She asked about the possibility of NOW filing an amicus brief to the Montana Supreme Court in relation to the Attorney General’s appeal of Judge Baugh’s sentence in the Rambold case. They informed her that anyone is free to seek permission to file such a brief and then directed her to the office of the Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court for more information on that process.

So stay tuned….

Montana’s Judge Baugh Must Go!

Are you upset about Billings (Yellowstone County), Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh’s alleged misuse of his judicial powers in a rape case in Billings, Montana?  Here’s something you can do about it.

A petition has been started on the Ultraviolet website regarding Judge G. Todd Baugh.  In part, it says,

Earlier this week, Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh gave a teacher who raped his 14-year-old student a 30-day jail sentence. Even worse, the judge said the girl was “as much in control of the situation” as her rapist and that she was “older than her chronological age.” THIS is rape culture at its worst.

And here’s an additional piece of information: this young girl committed suicide in 2010 after the 2007 series of rapes perpetrated by Stacey Rambold.

There are several petitions out on this issue. One goes directly to Judge Baugh. A second one goes to the Montana Secretary of State. This one goes to the Montana Supreme Court and the Montana Judicial Standards Commission.

The one going to the Department of State is inappropriately targeted. Oversight for the judicial system in not held within the Department of State. That’s because of our constitutional requirement that we keep separate the duties and responsibilities of the executive and judicial branches of government.

These two judicial-branch entities in Montana have oversight on judicial affairs and the conduct of the judiciary.  So this site is the CORRECT place to go if you want to sign a petition calling on the removal of MT’s Judge Baugh.

Once again, you want to let Montana know that Judge Baugh must go, click here to sign. Thanks!

An activist fights breast ironing, a ritual mutilation practice of girls in Cameroon

I say NO to breast Ironing: Picture that appeared on the original article at The Grio I SAY NO TO BREAST IRONING: Picture that appeared on the original article at The Grio.

This is part of the global violence that is occurring against women. Breast ironing is a form of torture and it must end. I’m glad Friends of UNPFA is helping to raise awareness about this torturous treatment of young women in Cameroon. For more background info, see Gender Danger’s posted videos on the problem at http://www.youtube.com/user/GenderDanger.

Civil Rights Denied: PA’s Proposed Constitutional Same-Sex Marriage Ban

Logo of Freedomt to Marry, Inc.

“working to win the freedom to marry in more states, grow the national majority for marriage, and end federal marriage discrimination. ” http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pages/about-us

A couple of days ago I posted a blog about the dueling marriage equality and same-sex marriage ban bills recently introduced into the Pennsylvania General Assembly.  Today I thought I give a more detailed argument as to how discriminatory the same-sex marriage ban is to gays and straights alike.

As previously stated, on May 7, Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-12 Butler County) introduced his legislation (HB 1349) to create a constitutional amendment defining marriage OR its “substantial equivalent” solely as a union between a man and a woman.  That bill would amend Article I of the Pennsylvania state Constitution – the Declaration of Rights section – to take rights away from unmarried couples in Pennsylvania, whether they are same-sex or heterosexual couples.  Here’s the constitutional amendment as written in HB 1349:

“Marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”

Until the spring of 2012, 31 states across the country had created constitutional amendments to outlaw marriage or anything that looks like marriage between same-sex couples. The last successful attempt at this form of discrimination occurred by referendum in North Carolina in the spring of 2012; all other attempts since then to deny marriage equality have failed.

Marriage equality however has had many successes since then. Three states – Delaware, Rhode Island, and Washington – either passed a referendum OR legislation legalizing marriage equality following North Carolina’s referendum. One state – Minnesota—is expected to pass their marriage equality bill today; note, this is only 6 months after the voters in Minnesota by referendum killed their proposed same-sex marriage ban.  And one state – Colorado – passed legislation recognizing civil unions even though they have a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Instead of moving forward, right-wing legislators would like to have Pennsylvania join the 31 other states that constitutionally ban-same sex marriages and/or other legal forms of relationships such as domestic partnerships and civil unions.  These Pennsylvanian legislators are making their fourth attack on same-sex couples and on unmarried people – gay or straight.  If HB 1349 passes, Pennsylvania for the first time in its history would enshrine and mandate discrimination into the state Constitution.

This amendment would take rights away from unmarried couples in Pennsylvania, whether they are same-sex or heterosexual couples.  The way this amendment is written would affect all unmarried couples, victims of domestic violence if they are not married to their abuser, and could threaten Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination laws

Effect on All Unmarried Couples – Gay or Straight

Currently, Pennsylvania statute recognizes only marriages between one man and one woman.

Pennsylvania does not recognize either (1) same-sex marriages or (2) civil unions, domestic partnerships, or any other coupled-household status—whether entered into by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.  Those affected by this amendment would therefore, for example, include senior citizens who live together but are not married because of economic considerations, couples who believe they have a “common law marriage” (which is no longer recognized in Pennsylvania), and gay or straight couples who have any type of intimate relationship.

It could also threaten the lives of unmarried domestic violence victims and allow unmarried individuals to be discriminated against in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

Effect on Domestic Violence Victims

In 2004, Ohio passed their discriminatory anti-marriage constitutional amendment, which was quickly and unexpectedly used to deny protections to unmarried victims of domestic violence.  Here’s what happened.  Almost immediately, unmarried batterers argued that since they were not married, Ohio could not enforce their domestic violence law because that was treating their relationship with their partner as “equivalent to marriage.” The 2nd District Court of Appeals in Ohio agreed and ruled that the Ohio domestic violence law runs afoul of the “Defense of Marriage” amendment, passed by voters in 2004, and does not apply to “a person living as a spouse.”  As a result, unmarried defendants, who could have faced felony domestic violence charges, only faced misdemeanor assault charges.    It took several years for the Ohio Supreme Court to reverse this ruling.  In the interim, unmarried women were at the mercy of their batterers in several counties in Ohio.

The Ohio amendment is very similar to that of the one proposed for Pennsylvania.   In Ohio, by providing protection to persons living as spouses,” the domestic violence statutes created a legal status for cohabiting relationships that is “equivalent to a marriage,” according to the appeals court. The appeals court decision in Ohio then denied protection from abuse to unmarried individuals – gay or straight – because the domestic violence law gave legal standing to an unconstitutional relationship – that of an unmarried couple. The courts argument overturning these domestic violence protections utilized similar language found in Pennsylvania’s HB 1439, which states that no other legal union… or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.

We have no way of knowing how the courts would rule on a similar argument should this amendment pass and become part of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.  Who knows if Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court would protect the victim or allow batterers to circumvent Pennsylvania’s Protection From Abuse (PFA) law?  We need to protect all people from domestic violence and sexual assault.  Passage of this amendment could deny the protection offered by Pennsylvania’s domestic violence and protection from abuse laws; it could even risk the very lives of unmarried people–gay or straight–because this constitutional amendment denies the rights, privileges, and protections of law to people who are not legally married or who have a relationship that is “functionally equivalent” to traditional marriage.

Effects on Employment, Education, Housing, and Public Accommodations

It also looks like current and proposed employment, education, housing, and public accommodations anti-discrimination laws at both the state and local levels might be jeopardized for unmarried individuals.  Discrimination based on marital status and family responsibilities is unlawful under a variety of existing laws. With a few exceptions, under current state and federal law, people who experience this form of discrimination must fit their claims into an appropriate legal theory—as discrimination based on gender, a violation of family and medical leave laws, or another legal theory.  In addition, many municipalities throughout Pennsylvania have passed or are considering ordinances that would make it illegal to discriminate in employment, housing, and in some cases, public accommodations specifically based on sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status.   Will the state courts, the PA Human Relations Commission, or local Human Relations Commissions be able to enforce these laws if Pennsylvania’s constitution has been amended to require unmarried couples to be treated differently from married couples?  We do not know.  Passage of HB 1439 as a constitutional amendment could put all of these protections at risk since any person, company, or school could argue that their business is mandated to deny employment, hiring, and benefits to any person who is not married.

Civil Rights Denied, Reiterated

Last, but not least, exclusion, discrimination and inequality are not the principles this state was founded upon. This discriminatory “Marriage Protection Amendment” denies unmarried heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families the protections and fairness they deserve. Heterosexual married couples and their families are afforded more than 1,000 legal protections and economic benefits provided through state and federal law, benefits and protections that are currently inaccessible to unmarried couples.  Passage of this amendment would therefore subject same-sex couples and their families to exclusion, discrimination and inequality.

The proposed amendment could also take away existing legal protections for committed long-term couples and their children, such as second parent adoptions, cohabitation agreements, co-parenting agreements, wills, living wills, powers of attorney, etc., regardless of their sexual orientation.

Gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians are our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family member.  They pay taxes.  LGBT people should not be bullied.  They deserve the same rights, protections, and responsibilities that all residents desire and have.

Let’s all work to stop this bill now!  So I’m once again recommending that you keep up-to-date on this horrible bill as well as other LGBTQ legislation at  Equality Pennsylvania’s website.

Update on Pittsburgh’s Domestic Violence Policies

Last week I wrote a blog about an attempt by Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess  to backtrack on the city’s domestic violence policies.

There has been a week of outrage among advocates for the back-handed attempt to eliminate the police-perpetrated domestic violence ordinance that was created in 2007.

Yesterday, three people, including former City Council President Douglas Shields and my friend Audrey Glickman (both of whom were quoted in last Friday’s blog), spoke out in committee to not backtrack.  Then today, advocates came out in mass to oppose the commingling of police-perpetrated domestic violence with police responses to domestic violence in the community.

Most of the advocates who spoke were given three minutes to express their concerns. Jeanne Clark (candidate for Pittsburgh City Council, long-time NOW member and a women’s rights advocate), Shirl Regan (Executive Director of Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh), Beth Pittinger (Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board), and Maryellen Deckard (State Campaign and Development Director for  Action United—a membership organization of low and moderate income Pennsylvanians that employed Ka’Sandra Wade before her death—and the convener of ANEW WOMEN—a group of women who have experienced domestic abuse and want to work for change) were given seats at the Council table to discuss the issues in more depth.

Following the concerns raised about domestic violence and with Jeanne’s call for a public hearing, Pittsburgh City Council quashed the attempt to eliminate the police-perpetrated domestic violence ordinance.  They placed a hold on the proposed Domestic Violence Task Force ordinance until after a post-agenda hearing is held.  And they passed the resolution that allows funds to be expended to start the Maryland Lethality Assessment Training program.

The final vote on this resolution and the amendments made in committee today will be finalized on Tuesday, May 14 during the official business meeting of city Council.   Here’s a news article on what happened, along with some quotes.

After the Council met and voted down Burgess’ proposal to eliminate the zero-tolerance policy, Councilman Bill Peduto sent me the following email:

Joanne –

I wanted to let you know that Councilwoman [Natalia] Rudiak, Councilman [Bruce] Kraus and I were able to lobby Council to successfully pass the Police-response DV bills today while stopping the amendments offered by Reverend Burgess that would have weakened the Police-perpetrated DV legislation we worked so hard on back in 2007.

It is unfortunate that politics entered into this debate at all but I am thankful for the many women and men who wrote in to Council and came to Council Chambers today.  With your help we were able to stop the games and pass this important legislation to protect victims of domestic violence.  Thank you.

Thanks Council members Peduto, Rudiak, and Kraus for your leadership on this issue.  Additional thanks to Councilman Danielle Lavelle for your comments and Councilman Corey O’Connor for your clarification on the differences between a resolution and an ordinance.

A final decision on the Domestic Violence Task Force ordinance will occur only after the post-agenda hearing and public hearing are held.

Thanks all for all of your work.

Picture of Joanne Tosti-Vasey standing with sign that says "I AM Ending Violence"

Joanne Tosti-Vasey “Refusing to be Silent” and calling for an end to gender-based violence

Pittsburgh: Do NOT Backtrack on Domestic Violence Protections

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a debate erupted in the Pittsburgh City Council meeting on  Wednesday, May 1, 2013 when Councilman Ricky Burgess presented a proposal to throw out the ordinance that established a zero tolerance policy in the city code for police-perpetrated domestic violence.  This was a last-minute amendment to a package of bills that was designed to improve police handling of calls received about domestic violence within the city.

After a two-hour long, heated debate, Council seems to have separated the two issues – domestic violence within the community and the police perpetrated domestic violence policy.  They will continue the discussion in their meeting on Wednesday, May 8.

What is going on?  Why would Pittsburgh even think of backtracking on the 2007 ordinance that was created to ensure that individuals with a history of domestic violence were not hired, be promoted, nor be allowed to continue employment after committing domestic violence while employed or being considered for employment within the police department? As explained in Chapter116, Department of Public Safety, Section III  of this ordinance, the purpose of the police-perpetrated domestic policy is, in part, to

“delineate a position of zero tolerance by the Bureau. It is imperative to the integrity of the profession of policing and the sense of trust communities have in their local law enforcement agencies that leaders, through the adoption of clear policies, make a definitive statement that domestic violence will not be tolerated.”

So if you want the community to trust your police and believe in their integrity, why would you throw out this ordinance?  And why would you attempt to do this when the intent of the proposal was to improve how police deal with cases of violence in the community?

I believe that there are three issues embedded within this debate.  First, Pittsburgh (and many other communities throughout the country) needs to ensure that cases of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault are appropriately handled whenever a call comes into 911 emergency services. Second, there should be no backtracking on the zero-tolerance ordinance.  And third, these two issues are separate issues that should not and cannot constitutionally be commingled. Here’s my take on these three issues.

Police Handling of Domestic Violence Calls

Why this is an issue in Pittsburgh

On December 31, 2012, according to many reports (including this one), Pittsburgh’s 911 services received a cell phone call from Ka’Sandra Wade asking for police to come to her home. The call was truncated.  The officers went, some 10 minutes later after they were done with another call and then called in to determine what was next.  A man would not let them into the door, but through a window told the officers that everything was all right. The officers claim that since the phone call was not from a land line, they did not know whether Ka’Sandra was home, even though she requested officers to come to her home.  They claim that they did not know it was a call about violence.  They lurked about for several more minutes, looking around the house, but then left.

The Officers never spoke directly to Ms. Wade, taking the word of the man at the door that refused to let them in to talk to Ka’Sandra.  She was found dead the next day.  When her boyfriend was confronted in his suburban residence, he said on a note that the officers could have saved Ka’Sandra, and he killed himself.

The Model Domestic Violence Community Policing Policy

According to the model policy by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on responding to potential domestic violence calls, 911 communications centers and police officers should

  1. Assign a priority response to all domestic ­violence calls, whether or not the assailant is known to be on the premises;

  2. Keep the caller on the telephone if the caller is a victim or witness to a domestic violence incident in progress in order to relay ongoing information provided by the caller to the responding officers and remain aware of ­victim’s safety;

  3. Not cancel the original call for service even if a subsequent request to cancel the original call is received; and

  4. Make contact with all residents of the house, all potential witnesses, victims, and perpetrators [emphasis added]….In evaluating the information, officers should take into account the credibility of the persons ­supplying the information and whether there is a reasonable basis for believing the information.

Pittsburgh has not, to my knowledge, instituted this model policy.  As reported in the press, none of these basic protocol actions were taken in this case.  Rather than immediately dispatching police to the scene, the police delayed their response for ten minutes.  They also took the word of only one resident – the man who refused to let them in – rather than talking to the original caller.  911 knew it was a woman that called, not a man. And yet they used his statement to cancel the request for service.  Which may have resulted in Ka’Sandra’s death after they left.  Note, she may have been dead already; however it is presumed that she was murdered after the police left based on the suicide note left stating that the officers could have saved her life.

Actions Taken Since January

People in the community quickly called for action to improve first responders’ behavior.  At the Action United vigil held for Ka’Sandra after her death, one of the speakers said that Action United would convene a group to craft policy to change how first responders act in cases of domestic violence.  That was on a Saturday.  The following Monday, Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess announced that he would convene a “group of professionals” to make recommendations to Council on how to handle these types of cases.  The result of this announcement was a series of closed-door, by-invitation-only meetings that resulted in two specific strategies to address the issue:

  1. Instituting the Maryland Lethality Assessment as a tool for police to use when responding to calls that could include issues of domestic violence and
  2. Creating a Domestic Violence Advisory Board (aka “task force’) as described in the Violence Against Women Act. This board would include representatives from organizations and institutions serving the needs of domestic violence victims to “provide policy guidance and make recommendations to the Public Safety Department [includes the bureaus of Police, Fire, EMS, Emergency Management, Building Inspection and Animal Care & Control] about best practices for law enforcement response to Domestic Violence.”  

Although this Domestic Violence Advisory Board sounds like it might help,  some advocates are not clear that creating a new board is necessory or appropriate.  There currently is a Citizen Police Review Board that reviews and makes recommendations on how to improve police services within Pittsburgh. There is also a Domestic Violence Committee that deals with all employees. So if this new board is created, would it be duplicating the oversight currently held by these other boards or not? Or is the problem not that there is no oversight, but that the police have ignored recommendations by these oversight boards that are already in place?

Although many people and most of the community’s advocates for ending domestic violence were left out of these discussions, these two strategies crafted into two ordinances (see here and here) and one resolution might help address some of what happened on December 31, 2013.

These bills were part of Wednesday’s Council meeting and will be discussed again next week.  A broader discussion and eventual passage of these ordinances could help ensure that cases of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault are appropriately handled whenever a call comes into 911 emergency services.

Don’t Backtrack

At this Council meeting on May 1, Councilman Ricky Burgess caused a real ruckus when he proposed and presented a last minute proposal to throw out the ordinance that established a zero tolerance policy in the city code for police-perpetrated domestic violence.

As the meeting was beginning, Councilman Burgess distributed a proposed amendment to one piece of legislation containing two paragraphs that referenced a part of what the Working Group had discussed last Friday.  The rest of the pages were an Amendment by Substitution of the portion of the City Code that would gut the Police/Officer-Involved Domestic Violence legislation passed in 2007. 

My girlfriend, Audrey Glickman, posted a couple of comments on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article regarding the debate and ruckus that occurred in this city council meeting.  Audrey was the person in 2007 who volunteered and coordinated the group of advocates that worked with former Councilman Doug Shields to craft the zero tolerance policy.  Here’s what she said about the sudden and unexpected back-tracking proposed by Councilman Burgess (I’m combining two of her comments so that you can see the history of the zero-tolerance policy):

This set of bills (and especially the amendment dunked in at the last minute with no knowledge or prior discussion among other Council persons) does not really address the details surrounding the tragedy attending Ka’Sandra Wade, may she rest in peace.  The response of the police – their not suspecting DV immediately, nor apparently even thinking of it, is what needs to be addressed.  The commission of DV by Pittsburgh’s Police Officers and the law that since 2007 has covered it well, and could save potential victims and prevent future lawsuits against the City, should not be up for discussion at all, much less as an amendment by substitution tossed on the Council table like so much trash.

There should be zero tolerance for all City employees committing domestic violence.  But the City Solicitor’s inability (as stated at the Council table) to defend having “zero tolerance” in the Police legislation – in a state in which, according to the representative from the Solicitor’s Office sitting at the Council table today, cities are allowed by law to hold police to a higher standard – is not a reason to eliminate zero tolerance from the Police/DV legislation [emphasis added].

The pieces of legislation that were supposed to be on the table would (1) enact a Lethality Assessment as in Maryland, to help discern issues and teach Police;  (2) fund that effort;  and (3) create a council to oversee DV.  None of that has anything to do with the legislation passed in 2007.

The 2007 legislation serves to prevent the heads of our Police force from getting away with committing DV by virtue of their position; serves to protect our City from a lawsuit such as the one Tacoma, Washington, faced, and had to pay $16 million to the family of the late wife of their police chief; and serves to define the specific policy – in detail – that the Bureau of Police must keep on the books.

The law (already in the City Code, passed in 2007) concerning police *committing* domestic violence was based on a model policy by the IACP [International Association of Chiefs of Police], was hammered out by a huge working group who did not always agree with each other, and when passed it was praised from coast to coast.

The original [2007] legislation was crafted through discussion among dozens of individuals. We had input from national experts and local service providers of all stripes. Everyone researched for months, years even. Emasculating this law would serve no one well.

Creating a political and divisive issue out of a law that was duly passed in 2007 and lauded from coast to coast is pointless and untenable.  Domestic violence is not a political football.  Some of the Councilpersons who spoke at the table referred to it as a women’s issue, but in truth DV is committed against women and men, the young and the old, the suspecting and the unsuspecting.

Council should leave the legislation already on the books alone, and find some way to teach the Police to consider potential DV when they respond to a call.

Audrey is right on the mark.  The zero-tolerance policy is based on model legislation created by Chiefs of Police across the country. It is good legislation. Don’t backtrack now.

Commingling Two Separate Issues

My final concern about what happened is that this last minute amendment to insert police-perpetrated domestic violence into issues concerning how officers respond to domestic violence calls is a commingling of two separate issues.  Audrey  put it this way in her Post-Gazette comment:

[Council ended the discussion of the bills with a] lousy one-week hold when large discussions and public hearings and real research are warranted to hash out whether there is any value at all to that poison-pill portion, which again had nothing to do with the original bills.

Nothing. It has nothing to do with the subject of the original bills. The original bills concerned officers *responding to* domestic violence calls. The poison pill concerned police officers *committing* domestic violence.

There is a world of difference. The former is a more prevalent issue and is the one at hand; the latter is a more delicate issue, and has already been successfully addressed [in 2007].

In addition, the introduction of police-perpetrated violence into a bill on police response through substitution, particularly at the last minute, may be unconstitutional according to the PA Constitution.  I am basing this on a Supreme Court opinion from 2008 when they overturned the expansion of Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation (Hate Crimes) Act.  Here’s what went down in that case.

In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly updated its statutes to define ethnic intimidation as committing a crime “with malicious intention toward the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals (Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, 2003; bolded items were added in the 2002 legislation).” However, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2007 overturned the expansion in a case called Marcavage v. Rendell. They opined that  the final version of the bill, which initially dealt with the crime of crop destruction, changed its original purpose during the amendment process at the last minute.

The Commonwealth Court stated and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in 2008 that this law was enacted in violation of Article III, Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. As a result, hate-crime protections for gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability were eliminated from the state’s hate crimes law.

This hate crimes law started off as a crimes bill dealing with a crime of crop destruction.  A crime, but in a different area.  In Pittsburgh, the initial intent and focus of the bills in Pittsburgh was responding to domestic violence.  The substitute proposed by Councilman Burgess focuses on a different area of violence – police or officer-initiated domestic violence.  Two different issues.  A world of difference. And I suspect, if it passes next week, could successfully be argued in court to have been unconstitutionally redacted under the first three sections of Article III of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Article III, Section 4 deals with bills within the General Assembly and is not germane to local legislation).

Actions Needed

The Working Group convened in January, although not completely open and transparent, did came up with two strategies focusing on how police should respond to cases of domestic violence.

Due the confusion that ensued during the public session on May 1, it is unclear whether the proposed amendment was amended in Council to be reduced only to the two paragraphs referring to the work of the Working Group or if the amendment by substitution is still on the table.  Removing the substitute amendment had been the intention of Councilman O’Connor during the debate; but it is believed he withdrew the amendment in the confusion that ensued.

One week may be enough time to discuss finalizing the legislation that was originally discussed by the Working Group.  It is nowhere near enough time to discuss deleting a good piece of legislation—the police-perpetrated domestic violence ordinance—from the City Code, nor should such a discussion be endeavored.  That law has nothing at all to do with what happened to Ka’Sandra Wade.  Weakening that law we would do nothing but tarnish Ka’Sandra’s memory.

On Wednesday, May 8, 2013, these bills will be taken up again in Committee. There will be public comment at the opening of the legislative and standing committee meetings on  Wednesday. These committee meetings officially start at 10:00 AM (but they do sometimes begin late). You should show up in droves.  People can have up to three minutes each to comment.  Come, stand up and be heard.  Tell Council

  1. Don’t backtrack on the 2007 police-perpetrated/officer-initiated domestic violence ordinance. It has nothing to do with the subject of the original bills and could be an unconstitutional overturn of the ordinance as described above;
  2. Institute the Maryland Lethality Assessment tool; and
  3. Discuss how and if the creation of the Domestic Violence Advisory Board would improve police response to domestic violence.  Duplication of duties and effort by multiple oversight boards could muddy rather than clear the waters. Only if it becomes clear that this new board would help should this proposal be enacted.

It is incumbent on all concerned to be vigilant.  Don’t backtrack.  But do do the right thing and make sure that police handle cases of domestic violence properly so that there are no more cases like that of Ka’Sandra Wade ever happen again.

Picture of Joanne Tosti-Vasey standing with sign that says "I AM Ending Violence"

Joanne Tosti-Vasey “Refusing to be Silent” and calling for an end to all forms of violence, including domestic violence

Additional Info After Posting This Blog

After I posted this blog, I had a phone and email conversation with Doug Shields.

He is the former President of Pittsburgh City Council who sponsored of the 2007 ordinance on police-perpetrated domestic violence.  He asked if I would continue spreading the word about what’s going down in Pittsburgh regarding domestic violence protections.  Here is a copy of his email call for action:

“As you know, we all fought hard and long to enact an Ordinance that began to address issues related to police officers and domestic violence.  This came about due to the Mayor’s promotion of three officers who had significant issues related to domestic violence.

Over the past few months, a task force, formed to shape legislation that addresses the lack of clear protocols in responding to a domestic violence call, worked to provide an appropriate response.  As a result, the Council was about to enact the so-called “Maryland Protocol” this week.

Numerous people who had worked hard to get this legislation to the Council table were shocked to find upon introduction, the sponsor, Councilman Burgess, had without notice, took the opportunity to delete the entire section of the Ordinance that was enacted in December of 2011.

When the bill passed finally in 2007, I had tears in my eyes.  It was the only time that ever occurred.

Now this.  Blog by Joanne Tosti-Vasey (See: https://civilrightsadvocacy.net/2013/05/03/pittsburgh-no-dv-backtracking/)

I write to ask you for help to have a strong presence at next Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Council meeting to utilize the public comment portion of the meeting to condemn this action by Councilman Burgess and to show strong support for the law we need and fought so hard to get.  

Unfortunately, your voice is needed again to defend that which we all worked on for so long.

The members who defended the bill were:  Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, Corey O’Connor, Natalia Rudiak and Bruce Kraus.

Those who joined with Mr. Burgess were, President Darlene Harris, Daniel Lavelle, and Theresa Kail-Smith.

Well worth watching this Council meeting, which repeats on air Sunday at 10:00 and 7:00 (Comcast City Channel 13), and which will soon be posted on line at the City’s Legislative Information Center.

Those who cannot be there on Tuesday or Wednesday at 10 AM are encouraged to  email or call the Council to convey their support for the Ordinance.  

Here is the link:    http://pittsburghpa.gov/council/

Here are the contacts for those who were ready to repeal the Ordinance.

Thank you for your anticipated cooperation in this matter.  Please also share this missive with others who would be interested in this issue.

Douglas Shields

Former President of Pittsburgh City Council

Prime sponsor of the Police & Domestic Violence Ordinance”

Pennsylvania General Assembly Again Attacking Women’s Reproductive Health

Keep Abortion Legal NOW Round

Keep Abortion Legal Safe, Legal and Accessible (http://www.now.org/issues/abortion/)

It’s 2013 and the Pennsylvania General Assembly continues to attack women’s access to reproductive health. According to WeveHadEnoughPA.org, the Pennsylvania legislature has launched and maintained a 2+ year attack on women’s health. There have been numerous bills introduced and in some cases passed that restrict women’s vital access to reproductive health.  Since January 2011, there have been at least 55 votes in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to restrict access from birth control to safe, legal abortions.

The most recent attack is happening this month.  On April 10, the Pennsylvania Senate Insurance and Banking Committee heard and passed out SB 3 by an 8-5 vote; a floor vote could occur any time this month.  This coming Monday, April 15th, the Pennsylvania House Health Committee will be hearing and voting on HB 818, the companion bill to SB 3.

The Additional Burdens on Women Seeking Abortion Care in These Bills

Both of these bills would prohibit insurance companies who provide health care coverage from including abortion coverage within the new healthcare Exchange crafted by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The only exceptions to this proposed ban are for women who become pregnant because of rape or incest if they personally report the sexual assault to law enforcement officials and for women who will die without immediate access to abortion services. If a woman doesn’t meet one of these two exceptions, she must completely pay for the abortion totally out of her own pocket, unlike any other medical care she would receive under her health insurance plan.

Currently, about 80% of private insurance companies provide coverage for abortion services. This is important because these very same plans will be offered to people purchasing insurance through the Exchange. As part of the federal law, however, all plans that offer abortion coverage in the Exchange must have a separate payment for that portion of the coverage. This bill would deny women the right to make this separate payment and deny them what is currently available to most people covered by the current private health insurance system. While women would still be able to have abortions in this circumstance, they would be forced to fully pay out-of-pocket all cost for these procedures; their insurance company would be prohibited from paying any portion of this treatment.

This proposed ban places an undue burden on victims of rape and incest and on those women whose lives are in danger health-wise by adding unnecessary barriers to receiving the critical medical attention they need. The two exceptions allowed are extremely limited. These bills require woman who are victims of rape or incest to notify the police and identify the perpetrator prior to seeking abortion treatment.  It also limits women with health issues that complicate their medical treatment to those that are in immediate danger of dying and requires additional medical certification by second, non-attending physician.

This bill places these restrictions on access to health insurance not by mentioning rape or incest or the death aversion clause, but by referring to and expanding Pennsylvania’s version of the Hyde Amendment.  This language is embedded in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3215(c) and would expand restrictions on public funds to all privately paid insurance plans purchased within the Exchange. The law (18 Pa.C.S. § 3215(c))as currently written is a prohibition of the state spending of public funds but not personal funds provided by the person herself for her own health insurance coverage.

The Rape and Incest Exception

Women and minors who are raped would be denied access to abortion services unless they formally report and identify their rapist to the police or child protective services.  Most sexual assaults are not reported to the police. This is even truer when the perpetrator is a family member or acquaintance. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, sexual assault occurs at a much higher rate than is actually reported.

Reasons for not reporting include an initial denial that they have been raped; fear that you won’t be believed or are ashamed for having been raped; or having an ongoing relationship (such as a spouse or parent) with the perpetrator. In order to be safe from further violence by the perpetrator, women and girls may decide not to report the attack to the authorities.  And if you are in denial you are also unlikely to report your rape or the incest of your child to authorities as required in this proposed legislation.

So that means if this bill becomes law and you become pregnant from rape or incest, you are further burdened with the additional costs of fully paying for the abortion. If this bill were not to go into effect, then following the restrictions placed on abortion care under federal law, you would have the abortion services covered based on the insurance rider you purchased in the exchange and you wouldn’t be forced to file a complaint with the police.  This is just one reason why this bill should be voted down.

The “Avert” Death Exception and Need for Expanded Health Exception

In addition, under this proposed law, women who are near death could receive an abortion.  However, say a woman develops cancer or an infection during her pregnancy that will not immediately kill her but would complicate her medical treatment should she continue with the pregnancy.

This health threat/complication is not included in the current bill’s health exception as that exception allows abortions only to “avert” the woman’s death. Any woman with a medical condition that is complicated by the pregnancy but doesn’t immediately place her in danger of death would be forced to bear the additional burden of the full cost of an abortion in addition to the increased threats to her health as well as the additional medical bills for the remaining part of her care.  The medical community, advocates and some legislators are very concerned about this limited exception and have proposed an amendment to both the House and Senate bill to expand this exception from “averting” her death to coverage of the abortion for any pregnancy that poses a substantial risk to the woman’s physical health.

But even if the health exception is expanded to include threats to women’s physical health and care, this bill continues to attack women’s health and lives and should be voted down.

Why this Bill Should be Voted Down

The question of whether abortion will be covered in federally subsidized insurance exchanges has already been settled.  In response to concerns raised by US Senator Ben Nelson, a staunch opponent of abortion, women who want to use their own money to purchase a health insurance plan that covers abortion services must send a separate payment so the funding for abortion coverage is completely separate and paid entirely by the individual. This bill denies women their right to make this separate payment.  And with an estimated 80% of private insurance plans currently covering abortion care, banning abortion coverage in the state exchange would leave women worse off than they were before health care reform began.

Abortion care is a legally authorized and fundamental component of women’s basic health care.  Women should not be denied access to safe, legal, and critical care as part of health care reform implementation.

If abortion coverage is available to some, it should be available to all.  Politicians should not discriminate against women participating in the health insurance exchange.  All women deserve the same peace of mind that they can obtain the health care they need, regardless of where their insurance comes from.

The decision to have an abortion is a private decision between a patient and her physician. It should not be denied by politicians interfering with an insurance company and the policies they offer to the consumer for this procedure.

Banning abortion coverage in transactions between a private company and an individual is governmental activism of the worst kind.  With all of the heated rhetoric over healthcare reform, one would assume that lawmakers would be sensitive about taking any action that suggests government intervention in private healthcare decisions.

Finally, instead of denying Pennsylvania women access to fundamental reproductive health care services, politicians should be working to protect and advance women’s health.

Action Needed

Contact your Pennsylvania Senator and Representative today (find their contact information here).  Tell her/him to support the expanded health exception amendment to both SB 3 and HB 818 and to oppose the entire bill regardless of the inclusion of the amendment.