Supreme Court temporarily blocks Texas abortion law

By Sandhya Somashekhar June 29 at 5:35 PM

NOW members protesting in front of 5th Circuit Court of Appeals during 2015 NOW National Conference in New Orleans

NOW members protesting in front of 5th Circuit Court of Appeals during 2015 NOW National Conference in New Orleans

The Supreme Court barred Texas on Monday from implementing a law that would have forced more than half the state’s 19 abortion clinics to close their doors later this week.

The law, which was to take effect Wednesday, would require clinics to adhere to strict new physical standards and the doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

The court granted the reprieve after abortion rights groups requested an emergency stay, having unsuccessfully sought to have the law overturned. The stay will probably remain in place at least through the summer while the parties assemble a legal case and the court decides whether to take it up in the next term.

The court did not offer a reason for its 5-to-4 decision, and the law’s ultimate fate remains unclear. The court’s reliably conservative justices — Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — dissented and would have let the law take effect.

The court hasn’t considered the abortion issue since 2007, when it upheld a federal ban on what some call “partial-birth” abortions. But a recent wave of state-level restrictions has put fresh pressure on the court to scrutinize limits placed on the procedure, which remains legal but is increasingly difficult to obtain in some states.

In particular, the court may be called upon to clarify what constitutes an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion. The court set that standard for new state restrictions in 1992, when it refused to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationally.

The decision to temporarily block the Texas restrictions prompted a sigh of relief from abortion rights groups and clinic operators, who said they had been prepared for clinic closures across a broad swath of the state. They contend that the new state standards are medically unnecessary and that the law’s real purpose was to reduce access to abortion.

With the court’s decision Monday, they warned that their fight is not over.

“This Supreme Court decision is a temporary victory for Texans’ health and safety, but it only postpones a public health disaster,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement. “The reality is that Texans’ health and safety are still in jeopardy.”

Texas Republican leaders immediately criticized the decision, arguing that the new restrictions are intended to safeguard women’s health. Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), who also sharply criticized the court’s decision last week legalizing same-sex marriage, said in a statement that the justices “just put Texas women in harm’s way.”

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) expressed confidence that the law would survive the legal challenge.

“Texas will continue to fight for higher-quality healthcare standards for women while protecting our most vulnerable — the unborn — and I’m confident the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold this law,” he said in a statement.

The law in question is House Bill 2, a sweeping measure approved two years ago that instituted an array of abortion restrictions that activists say are already responsible for the closing of half the state’s abortion clinics. The provisions blocked Monday were the final parts of that law awaiting implementation.

Beginning Wednesday, doctors performing abortions would have been required to have special relationships with hospitals within 30 miles of their abortion clinics. Supporters of the “admitting-privileges rule” say it ensures that patients are able to receive lifesaving care in case their abortion goes awry.

Critics say these privileges are virtually impossible for many abortion providers to obtain, in part because abortions are so safe. Doctors who perform them are therefore generally unable to attain the minimum number of admissions most hospitals require to establish such a relationship.

Another part of the law would require abortion clinics to have the same equipment and facilities standards of outpatient surgical centers. Supporters of the law say imposing those standards would make such important changes as ensuring that hallways are wide enough for hospital gurneys.

But opponents of the law say such standards are not necessary, either for surgical abortions or for abortions induced by medication. Meanwhile, such upgrades would be impossible for many clinics, either financially or physically, abortion rights groups say — forcing them to shut down.

Native Children Are Facing A ‘National Emergency.’ Now Congress Is Pushing To Address It.

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WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama has lunch with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Youth at We, The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery following an Oval Office greeting on November 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama invited the youth group to visit the White House during a trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota in June. (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama has lunch with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Youth at We, The Pizza/Good Stuff Eatery following an Oval Office greeting on November 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama invited the youth group to visit the White House during a trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota in June. (Photo by Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images)

Robert Looks Twice grew up in a trailer with his grandmother, uncle and eight cousins on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Looks Twice, along with two other young Native people from Pine Ridge, was a subject of Diane Sawyer’s “Children of the Plains,” a special that first aired on ABC in 2011.

For many Americans, “Children of the Plains” was a startling glimpse into the poverty and despair affecting the lives of Native Americans. Five cousins share a single bedroom with a collapsing ceiling. People carry the scars of generations of alcoholism and addiction. They spend their days broken and weeping in the quivering grass of the hills where their ancestors — Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull — captured Custer’s American flag at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876; where the 7th cavalry massacred the Lakota and poured their bodies into a mass grave at Wounded Knee in 1890. This is what happened to the first peoples of this land. This is the lot left to their children.

Now, from impoverished reservations in the West, to Congress and the White House in the East, there is a growing bipartisan movement to document and address the lack of resources and opportunities in Native communities.

In June 2014, President Barack Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — the people of Sitting Bull — on the border of North and South Dakota, becoming only the eighth president to visit an Indian reservation while in office. During his visit, Obama met with Lakota and Dakota youth, whose stories of forestalled opportunities, drinking and suicide moved him to tears. After the president’s visit, the administration increased its efforts in Indian Country, producing reports, programs and initiatives designed to support Native youth.

After Obama’s visit, in November 2014, the Department of Justice released a report detailing Native children’s unhealthy exposure to violence. The DOJ report was soon followed by the White House’s 2014 Native Youth Report on the state of education in Indian Country.

Together, these reports told an alarming story of overwhelming poverty, epidemic suicide, combat-level rates of PTSD and low educational attainment among Native youth. Here are some of the more striking statistics:

More than one in three Native children live in poverty.
The high school graduation rate for Native students is 67 percent — the lowest of any ethnic group in the country. At Bureau of Indian Education schools, the graduation rate is 53 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 80 percent.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15 to 24, and occurs at 2.5 times the national rate.
Twenty-two percent of Native youth suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — exceeding or matching PTSD rates among Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf War veterans, and almost three times the 8 percent rate of PTSD in the general population.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a bill in January to create a commission on the status of Native children.

Last week, Reps. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) introduced the House version of the bill.

The legislation would create an 11-member commission to study the programs, grants and services for Native children that are already provided by agencies and tribes. The commission would then produce a report and work to advance the longer-term goal of increasing coordination between service providers, making better use of resources and strengthening partnerships with the private sector to measurably improve outcomes for Native children.

Heitkamp, who served as attorney general of North Dakota from 1993 to 2001, has a strong background working with tribes in her state. When she arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2013, she made Native children a top priority. At her first bipartisan dinner with other women senators, Heitkamp’s colleagues asked what legislation she hoped to introduce while in Washington. She reportedly told her colleagues that “[her] passion is Native American children.” Murkowski overheard Heitkamp’s answer and crossed the room to talk to her. They quickly became friends — and out of that friendship, a bipartisan bill to create the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children was born.

“When you give the statistics, it should be a national emergency,” Heitkamp told The Huffington Post. “I give the United States government an ‘F’ in protecting children in Indian Country. It’s been bad for a long time, and we haven’t addressed it, and we’ve let it get worse.”

Cole, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and one of only two Native Americans in Congress, said the federal government has a responsibility to Indian nations.

“A lot of these kids are growing up on trust land, on reservations, where we really are the people that are supposed to be providing decent education and a decent set of opportunities and a secure and safe environment — and historically, the federal government simply hasn’t,” he said.

“An extraordinary amount of land was surrendered in exchange for certain commitments that, by and large, haven’t been kept,” he added.

Robert Looks Twice and the Oglala Lakota of Pine Ridge, who live on land promised to them in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, know this well. The vast majority of the land promised to the Great Sioux Nation in that treaty, including the sacred Black Hills, was illegally seized by settlers in 1876. With their land taken and the basic services guaranteed to them by the federal government neglected — including education, housing and healthcare — the Lakota, like Native peoples across this continent, have struggled to live with dignity in the wake of dispossession.

The proposed commission makes no promises regarding broken treaties and makes no legislative commitments. The last Congress passed only 22 out of 122 bills and resolutions related to Indian affairs, so it’s unlikely that this legislation will be able to break through the partisan gridlock. Nonetheless, lawmakers and stakeholders from all political backgrounds are hopeful.

Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who founded the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth after retiring from Congress, says that now is the time.

“Timing is everything, and I think that the president of the United States went to an Indian reservation this past year, and we had a White House youth event dealing with the issues and opportunities for Indian children, so there’s been a lot going on,” he said.

Despite tensions between Obama and the Republican Party, Cole offered the highest praise for the current administration’s record in Indian Country.

“The president has an excellent record on Native American affairs — one of the best records in the 20th century, without a doubt,” he said.

“Indian issues really aren’t Democratic or Republican-focused, they actually cut across,” he added. “It’s actually one of the areas [where] we cooperate.”

Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, says a bipartisan bill has been a long time coming. “This commission that [Heitkamp] has offered up has really been what education stakeholders across the country have been asking for.”

Rose says the commission’s holistic approach to the range of issues affecting Native children can bring lawmakers together to improve the situation. “What’s interesting about this commission is that it will be able to start moving forward and offering some legislative changes,” she said. “Instead of just maybe being a study that sits on the shelf, this can really do some impactful, meaningful change.”

Dorgan says that starts by engaging Indian nations. “You have to engage tribes and tribal authorities,” he said. “You have to engage parents and children, because if you don’t have engagement with the affected people, you’re not going to ever begin to solve these things.”

With 566 federally recognized tribes across the country, that is no small task. “Our nations are so unique that a cookie-cutter model won’t work,” said Rose.

Despite the vast and deep-rooted challenges of working in Indian Country, Rose is hopeful.

“Our population is small and it’s really easily hidden,” she said. “That will be the power of this commission: to shine a spotlight on these faces and on these stories, so that every senator and every congressperson is able to relate and bring those stories to the work that they do.”

Members of Congress Report on Texas Family Detention Center Visits

Written by Catalina Restrepo, June 24, 2015

Earlier this week, eight Democratic House Members took a trip to Dilley and Karnes, Texas to visit two immigrant family detention facilities and meet with women and children detained there. Dozens of women demonstrated during the visit, using sheets and pillow cases to make their statements. One five-year-old boy held up the message, “I am not a criminal, please give me my freedom”. Today, the Members held a press conference to discuss their trip and what they saw and heard from the mothers and children they met.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren likened the two facilities to the jails that she saw while working in local government and said that in fact, the immigrant family detention centers were more restrictive than some of the jails that they have for juveniles. Lofgren also described the psychological damage that has resulted from the incarceration of these kids. Some of those who have been detained for extended periods of time are starting to regress. She described seeing four-five year olds trying to nurse and an 8 year old child who had started to wear diapers again.

Rep. Roybal-Allard, who heard accounts of rape, abuse, gang threats, and violence, said that one of the saddest moments for her during the trip was hearing about the trauma that the women and children had to face once they got to the United States. The women are demoralized, traumatized, demeaned, and yelled at by guards in front of their children. When their children get sick, they are simply told, “tell them to drink water.” Roybal-Allard received a drawing from an eight-year-old girl that had eyes with tears and the words “Quiero ser libre”or “I want to be free”.

Rep. Steny Hoyer met a young boy named Jefferson, who is turning four years old today and has spent 25 percent of his life in detention, “not because his mother committed a crime, but because that is the way America’s system is working.” Rep. Raul Grijalva described another four year old boy hugging his leg and saying “are you here to get us out of this jail?” Later Grijalva commented on the DHS announcement issued today that the agency will work to end long-term detention of families by implementing a plan to quickly process families seeking asylum and then to set “appropriate” bonds so that families will be released while they await a hearing before an immigration judge. The new DHS policy does not end immigrant family detention altogether. Grijalva noted, “frankly I don’t care how much lipstick you put on it; the matter is that these are jails. It’s still a cage, it’s still a prison for women and children. The Secretary needs to understand that this is not something you can window dress, this has to stop.”

For Rep. Judy Chu, the detention centers reminded her immediately of Japanese internment camps and she emphasized that we have to call Dilley and Karnes what they really are—prisons for women and children who are not criminals. Rep. Chu also described the courage of the women and children who were demonstrating in front of the guards, begging for freedom with tears running down their faces, knowing that the guards could retaliate.

The Members all urged for a humanitarian approach that treats these families with respect and compassion. An alternative approach that doesn’t spend $250,000 taxpayer dollars to jail a woman because she can’t afford to pay her $5,000 bond. An approach that does not involve for-profit private prison companies that are more concerned with making a profit than they are about the safety and well-being of these families. The Members also agreed that though Secretary Johnson’s announcement is a step in the right direction, it is only a step, and is inadequate. These facilities need to be closed.

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How Feminism Has Been Great for Kids

by Cody FenwickJune 26, 20151:00 pm

Feminism, though perhaps not a unified movement or idea, is embraced by those who oppose the male-dominated and sexist nature of our (and most) societies. It aims to open up choices and opportunities to women to achieve the social and economic equality of the genders.

Despite the progress, such as it is, that has been made towards feminists goals, many traditionalist and oppressive norms still hold sway. Women are still berated by society about the choices they make, in particular the choices they make as mothers. One common subject of concern that seems to merit extensive hand-wringing in some conservative circles is the effect working mothers have on their children.

A recent study released working draft of a study suggests that there may, in fact, be significant benefits to children from having working mothers. Of course, we cannot be overly confident about the results of a single study; however, its research is impressive in its scope, covering 24 countries and five continents.

The study found that daughters of working mothers had on average a higher chance of being employed, having a higher wage, and having a management position over others. In other words, working mothers seemed to provide future economic advantages to their daughters.

Sons of working mothers saw no similar economic benefits. What is interesting about the sons is the reduced influence gender roles had in their adult lives, insofar as they were more likely to perform an equitable amount of chores and spend time taking care of family members.

While almost everyone agrees its a good thing if fathers spend significant quality time taking care of their children, there’s also decent evidence that fathers who are more involved with their children are happier and more productive in their careers. If this is right, a man with a satisfying job and family life might owe some of his success to having a working mother.

Studies of lesbian couples parenting have similarly found that the children of these relationships grow up with with a more equitable share of housework and thus a less rigid view of gender roles than those of other families. And there’s good reason to think that this can be very important later in life, as a fair division of household chores can be an key factor in a happy marriage.

Since this data I’ve discussed about working mothers is observational, there are reasonable doubts to be had about the study. It would be preferable for a study to examine cases of woking adoptive mothers, to reduce the possibility of genetics playing a causal role in the children’s outcomes. Of course, randomized controlled trials would be most scientifically enlightening, but morally objectionable.

Fortunately, an extensive meta-study was published in 2010 looking at 69 studies spanning five decades, which examined behavioral patterns and future achievement for the children of working mothers. It found that there was little if any negative impacts on children from maternal employment, and in some instances these children showed benefits in terms of future achievement.

One caveat is that maternal employment narrowly constrained to just the first year of life for a child had some negative effects; however, the authors of the study rightly point out that, taken as whole, this counts in favor of employment leave policies for new mothers, rather than against working motherhood as a whole.

There’s a different, though related, way in which increasing women’s choices is beneficial to children. Giving women control over their reproductive lives, as scientific advancements over the last several decades have increasingly done, leaves them much better prepared when they eventually decide to have kids.

We know this is having positive effects, because the rates of births to teen mothers have fallen drastically, and access to birth control deserves at least some of the credit. This decline itself creates a virtuous circle, because one of the leading contributors to teen pregnancy is being the child of a teen mother.

This is unequivocally better for children, because there are serious disadvantages to being born to teen mothers. Of course, these children can still be very happy and successful in life, but they will start out with greater challenges. We should give children the best start to life that’s possible.

And of course, conservative states, those least friendly to feminism, are those with the highest rates of teen births.

None of this is to say that feminism must be understood in its relationship to children, or justified by the benefits that children accrue. Many women and feminists do not wish to have children, as is naturally their prerogative. But some seem to believe that feminism is somehow in tension with parenthood and happy families, which is nonsense.

Feminism, contra its detractors, is in fact inherently a family value. And families are best protected and supported when all of their members are given equality and the freedom of choice.

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Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Portions Of Federal ‘3 Strikes’ Sentencing Laws

While the country was busy celebrating the Supreme Court’s long-awaited marriage equality ruling, the justices issued another ruling in the Johnson v. United States case that dealt a crucial blow to the prison industrial complex. The SCOTUS ruled that a key provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which lengthens the sentences of “career criminals,” is unconstitutionally vague. The ruling paves the way for thousands of prisoners to have their sentences reduced and will cause the private prison industry to lose millions of dollars in profits.

In 1984, Congress passed the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), the law required judges to sentence people to 15 years to life if they have three prior convictions for “serious drug offense” or “violent felonies.” However, what exactly qualified as a “violent felony” was frustratingly vague and was used as a sentence enhancer in many non-violent cases. A “residual clause” in the ACCA allowed third time felons to be sent to prison for any crime that ” presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” That potential risk could include drunk driving, fleeing police, failing to report to a parole officer and even attempted burglary. It seemed to be used as a catch-all sentence enhancer for the sole purpose of throwing people in prison for years longer than they deserved to be. This practice has become increasingly more common as more states allow for-profit prisons in their states.

In the Johnson case, the government used the ACCA to enhance Samuel Johnson’s prison sentence because of a prior conviction of possession of a sawed off shotgun. Johnson argued that he shouldn’t be subjected to a harsher sentence, because the definition of what was considered “violent” was unconstitutionally vague. The SCOTUS agreed with Johnson and issued a 7-1 ruling in his favor.

Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion for the court and ruled that the residual clause of the ACCA is a violation of due process:

“Nine years’ experience trying to derive meaning from the residual clause convinces us that we have embarked upon a failed enterprise. Each of the uncertainties in the residual clause may be tolerable in isolation, but “their sum makes a task for us which at best could be only guesswork.” United States v. Evans, 333 U. S. 483, 495 (1948). Invoking so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison for 15 years to life does not comport with the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.”

This was the fifth time since 2007 that the Supreme Court had to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the clause; with a court that only hears about 75 cases a year, it is extremely rare for them to revisit something so many times.

Now, prosecutors across the country will have to figure out who qualifies to have their sentences reduced, a move that is probably making private prison CEOs weep in despair. The private prison industry has been a long-time supporter of harsh mandatory minimum sentences because that means higher profits for them. The two biggest private prison corporations–GEO and Corrections Corporation of America— make about $3 billion annually off of incarcerated Americans; in turn they spend millions of dollars on lobbying efforts.

The lawmakers in many states are contractually required to fill up the beds in private prisons; so it’s not too hard to figure out why the ACCA is such a popular sentence enhancer. Private prisons have even been known to sue state governments if they aren’t filed to capacity- making taxpayers foot the bill for low crime rates. It’s an absolute travesty and a key piece in the conservative war against minorities and the poor, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and destroying communities around the country. Today’s ruling means Congress will have to clarify the law and you can bet that private prison lobbyists are about to throw even more money at lawmakers, but hopefully it sounds a death knell for mass incarceration in our nation.