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Betsy DeVos’ Sexual Assault Rules Won’t Protect Teens Like Us

On Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new rules for Title IX—a civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education—are set to go into effect.

If that happens, student survivors will bear the brunt of an education system that is willing to sweep sexual violence under the rug in favor of perpetrators and schools’ reputations. As two recent high school graduates, we know that DeVos’ rule will have real and harmful implications for K-12 students.

When one of us was groped in the hallway of her school in the tenth grade, she reported the sexual assault to her district’s Title IX coordinator to receive support to ensure she had a safe learning environment. An investigation was launched, and a no-contact order was issued to mitigate the fear of having to interact with the person who assaulted her. But if the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) gets its way, K-12 schools would be allowed to shirk their responsibility to student survivors.

The new rule only requires schools to investigate the most extreme forms of harassment and assault, and schools are only legally mandated to act when a student’s access to education is completely denied. This means students like us would have to experience repeated and escalating harassment before action can be taken, instead of the school intervening the first time harassment occurs.

We’ve seen the impact prolonged trauma from sexual misconduct has had on our friends. We’ve watched as they struggled academically, forced to sit in class with their perpetrators because of their school’s failure to take action. DeVos’ rule doesn’t help students. Instead, it is intended to protect the bottom lines of higher ed institutions, sweeping sexual violence under the rug at the cost of young survivors’ right to an education free from violence.

While students have been organizing around sexual violence on college campuses for years, high schools have struggled to adequately enforce Title IX.

For example, Shelby County Schools district in Tennessee had gone without a full-time Title IX coordinator for years, only hiring one at the beginning of the 2019 school year. As a result of K-12 schools failing to educate students on their Title IX rights, sexual violence and sexual harassment go largely unchecked, undermining the educational opportunities of students and at times even forcing them out of school entirely.

The new rule moves things in the wrong direction and fails to address the gaps in Title IX compliance in K-12 schools. DeVos’ rule would allow schools to ignore sexual violence that takes place outside of a school program or activity, letting too many perpetrators off the hook. This would be particularly devastating for K-12 students, as only 15 percent of adolescent sexual assaults occur on school property. Students like the 14-year-old from Virginia who was assaulted by a classmate at a park in 2017 would be left without support from their schools in the aftermath of violence. Even though assault—whether on or off campus—clearly affects a student’s ability to access education, schools will be forced to ignore survivors’ reports and allow students’ needs to fall by the wayside simply because the assault occurred off campus or outside of a school activity.

High school students are particularly vulnerable when it comes to Title IX because we depend on our schools’ teachers and administrators to guide us in understanding our rights. We need a community-wide effort to mitigate the harm from DeVvos’ new rule and provide student survivors with the resources they need to stay in school after facing violence. Adults can help by educating themselves and the students in their lives about Title IX. Teachers can facilitate conversations about how to report sexual harassment and assault, and administrators can create policies to support students instead of rolling back existing protections.

Advocates are challenging these rules in court, but you can still take action to help student survivors. Some parts of the rule give schools discretion in how they implement policies. Schools can choose to protect the rights of survivors and pick less harmful policies, but we will have to hold them accountable to make that happen. Students have a powerful voice, and we’ll need to use it to protect survivors. We want Betsy DeVvos to hear loud and clear that we will not back down; we will continue to fight for every student’s right to an education free from gender-based violence.

You Can’t Try to Kill Students and Expect Them to Be Quiet About It

Fifteen-year-old Hannah Watters knew she was violating her school’s code of conduct when she posted photographs of North Paulding High School’s crowded corridors to social media.  

Ignoring scientific evidence that COVID-19 can race through a group of children, Georgia had deemed it safe to open schools last week. When Watters documented what was happening in her school—overcrowded hallways with throngs of mostly maskless students—the school suspended her for publicizing the conditions. It’s the first, but likely not the last, coronavirus-related free speech battle that’s going to happen in K-12 schools this fall. 

The school walked back Watters’ suspension, though another student may still be suspended. The affair highlights a problem school districts are going to face as more schools open: how to control the messaging. 

North Paulding High School attempted to control that messaging by suspending Watters, the sophomore who took the pictures of the crowded corridors. They told her it was a violation of the school’s code of conduct, which prohibits using a phone without permission and using it to post to social media. 

However, as Watters later explained to CNN, students in grades 9-12 are allowed to use their cell phones during non-instructional time, such as in the hallways between class—precisely what Watters photographed. In addition, Watters didn’t post her photographs to social media until after the school day was over. 

Watters admitted she technically violated the school’s code of conduct by taking pictures and video of students for later use on social media. But she did it anyway because she was “concerned for the safety of everyone in that building and everyone in the county.”

Schools use codes of conduct to control what students can say, particularly on social media. They’re often trying to get around a major U.S. Supreme Court holding that’s been in effect for over 50 years. 

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, decided in 1969, the Supreme Court found that students’ rights to free speech do not stop at the schoolhouse doors. In that case, the high school attempted to control free speech about the Vietnam War by barring students from wearing black armbands as a form of silent protest. 

Three students chose to wear armbands and were suspended. The Supreme Court ruled the suspension violated the students’ constitutional rights. The Court found that schools can block students from speech during school that is disruptive or “impinge[s] upon the rights of others.” And if the speech “substantially interferes” with school discipline, schools have a right to regulate or forbid it. But aside from that, schools generally have to allow students free speech. 

That’s especially true when, as here, the student speech occurred off campus and after hours. Watters didn’t post her photos or video until the school day ended, and she did it via social media, not through a communication channel controlled by the school. She didn’t disrupt the school day or interfere with school discipline. But the school used its broad code of conduct to suspend her nonetheless.

It’s a perfect example of how schools undermine Tinker’s holding that student free speech is both necessary and constitutional. By putting restrictions in a code of conduct, the school can say the student violated neutral school policy. Theoretically, any student posting anything from a hallway in North Paulding would have suffered the same fate as Watters.

But in bringing a dangerous school condition to light, Watters was engaging in vital free speech. She got the word out that things in North Paulding were unsafe and that the school was flouting CDC guidelines, which say schools should “implement multiple [COVID-19] mitigation strategies,” including social distancing and masks.

Importantly, Watters’ speech got results. There was significant press coverage of the crowded hallways and of the school’s insistence that the photos “lacked context” and that it could not enforce a mask mandate even though it enforces an elaborate dress code

After Watters’ photos appeared, North Paulding was forced to admit that nine people—six students and three staff—tested positive for the virus and had been at school that week. The district closed the school for two days to sanitize the building, then extended the closure for a full week, This seems to be mostly hygiene theater, as sanitizing surfaces won’t solve the problem of cramming maskless students together in a hallway. But Watters performed a vital public service nonetheless.

During this time, young people must be empowered to make their own determinations about their own safety. In 2018, students in Detroit staged a walkout over the contaminated water that made their schools unsafe to attend. And after the Parkland shootings that same year, students across the country walked out to protest gun violence. A direct line can be drawn from the students in Tinker protesting an unjust war, to those who walked out of their schools, to Watters’s speech. 

Students don’t give up their voice when they walk through school doors, and they shouldn’t have to give up their voice when they’re put in an unsafe situation by that very same school.

New Campus Sexual Assault Rule Only Pretends to Protect Students

In a few days, Betsy DeVos’ new rule governing Title IX—a federal civil rights law that requires schools to respond to sexual misconduct against students—will go into effect.

With the rule’s release, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and DeVos, the department’s secretary, have attempted to position themselves as allies to survivors. They celebrate in their press release that the new rule explicitly defines intimate partner violence (IPV)—stalking, domestic violence, and dating violence—as a form of violence schools must remedy.

But the rule is far from a lifeline to survivors of intimate partner violence. Instead, it makes monumental changes that will take the teeth out of Title IX and let schools off the hook for failing to respond to IPV in their communities.

Although the new Title IX rule recognizes IPV, it narrows the types of violence schools must recognize and respond to, creating a system that will leave student survivors without recourse and make campuses less safe.

Students across the country have long faced the grim reality that it’s hard to learn when sharing a classroom with your abuser. One in five high school girls report experiencing physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, and nearly half of college women face abuse at the hands of a partner. LGBTQ students face even higher rates. Student survivors are more likely to experience PTSD, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression.

As a result, survivors are frequently robbed not only of their education but also, sometimes, of their lives. In fact, 50 percent of youth who experienced dating violence and rape also report attempting suicide. Still others are ultimately murdered by their partners—even after turning to their schools for help. After years of student advocacy, schools were finally starting to address IPV cases.

But now, DeVos is rolling back the clock. Through the new rule, she is putting survivors of IPV at elevated risk, all while pretending to be their fiercest advocate.

Under the DOE’s new rule, schools are barred from responding to almost all complaints of off-campus violence. Yet 87 percent of college students and nearly all K-12 students live off-campus, and most students spend much of their lives outside the bounds of their schools. This poses a unique threat to victims of IPV because the most violent acts between intimate partners are often committed in private, such as in off-campus housing or at off-campus events. DeVos and the DOE can’t claim to care about survivors of IPV while creating safe havens for abusers and leaving victims without recourse. Abuse that happens off-campus is still abuse. No matter where violence occurs, it still compromises survivors’ educational access and physical safety.

The DOE’s dismissal of off-campus violence is made worse by an extremely narrow definition of what kind of on-campus harassment even merits a response from schools. The new rule would require schools to respond only to violence that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies a person equal access to education”—a higher standard than is required for complaints of harassment based on race, national origin, or disability. Reports of intimate partner violence will not be required to meet that narrow standard. But because schools often miscategorize incidents of on-campus IPV as harassment, students experiencing violence that fails to meet DeVos’s extreme standard could be turned away by their schools when they seek help because their cases aren’t yet “bad enough,” or because the violence that was “bad enough” happened outside of school.

“Dating violence often gets lost in the harassment issues, and there are issues in domestic relationships that are just as toxic and dangerous,” Matt McCluskey told the New York Times in February. His daughter, 21-year-old Lauren McCluskey, was kidnapped and killed by her ex-partner in 2018 after reporting the violence to her school.

Intimate partner violence is fundamentally about power and control: In addition to or in place of overt violence, abusers might use tactics such as limiting victims’ sleep, internet access, or free time. Actions like this undoubtedly impact victims’ educational access; term papers can’t be turned in when your partner is intentionally keeping you from working. But under DeVos’ rule, schools would be allowed—and even encouraged—to write this abuse off as inconsequential.

Even worse, IPV is patterned behavior, and without intervention it will almost always escalate over time. If DeVos has her way, by the time schools are mandated to respond to IPV, it may be too late.

Like in the cases of Lauren McCluskey, Yeardley Love, and Jaelynn Willey—all students who lost their lives because of schools’ and systems’ failure to respond to IPV—abuse could become fatal. Students who come forward seeking help need to be taken seriously by their schools, rather than silenced. For those experiencing IPV, it’s not just a matter of equal access to education, but of life and death.

While many supporters of DeVos’ rollback have insisted survivors of IPV should turn to the police instead of their schools, survivors seeking recourse through the criminal legal system face an uphill battle. Police responses to IPV are woefully inadequate, with over 80 percent of advocates and service providers reporting that police did not take survivors seriously or blamed them for the abuse. Lauren McCluskey, for instance, had her case repeatedly ignored not just by her school, but also by local law enforcement officers in the weeks leading up to her death—officers who, instead of helping her, bragged about having explicit photos of her days before her murder. Coupled with the unnerving fact that law enforcement households are more likely to experience domestic violence, survivors are left with few options that feel safe.

The DOE’s new rule threatens to unravel years of fierce activism by survivors to protect their right to an education free from violence. If it goes into effect, it will embolden perpetrators of IPV, creating loopholes for schools to ignore the suffering of students in abusive relationships.

The consequences are unimaginably severe: Not only will survivors lose access to educational opportunities, but they may also lose their lives. While DeVos makes hollow claims about her commitment to dating and domestic violence victims, student groups across the country are fighting back against this rule before it goes into effect on Friday—join them.

With Kamala Harris as Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick, Our Time Is Now

I remember the snowy Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019 when I was in Park City, Utah, for work when I took a break to watch Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) kick off her presidential campaign. As a Black woman working in politics, I was in tears full of inspiration with what Black women could achieve. And even though I went on to work for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-CA) during the primary, that feeling of history and inspiration remains.

Throughout history, Black women have fought against all odds to demand our seat at the table, to fight for our communities as a whole, to imagine a world where every person’s experiences are validated and justified. We have led both women and Black men to the freedom line, only to be told to wait our turn because the intersection of our identity was too burdensome.

Our time is now.

Harris is the first Black woman at the top of a major party ticket. The first Asian American. The first member of a Black Greek letter organization. The first graduate of a historically black college or university.

ProgressivePunch rates her record as a senator as one of the most progressive. And according to FiveThirtyEight‘s tracking, in the 116th Congress she ranks 99th out of 100 for voting in line with Donald Trump—a “bad” record all of us should be proud of.

When it comes to reproductive freedom, Harris has an impeccable record. She’s protected funding for Planned Parenthood health centers, opposed the domestic “gag rule,” supported the protection of the Title X family planning program, and introduced Black maternal health legislation alongside reproductive justice leaders. During her presidential campaign, she proposed a plan that would require states with a history of violating Roe v. Wade to get approval from the Justice Department before enacting new abortion laws.

Black women are excited. Even us members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority share joy with our sister Greeks of Alpha Kappa Alpha, who are making history with one of their own. Regardless of the numerous well-qualified women any of us thought would have been the ideal running mate, the mutual consensus is this is a historic moment, and we will absolutely not tear down a Black woman with the misogynoir we face daily.

As Elizabeth Warren, my former boss, said, Kamala Harris is an inspiration to the many women who see ourselves within her, and most importantly, she is unafraid.

There is room for disagreement in the big tent of the Democratic Party. Harris challenged Biden during the primary, and he still chose her as the most qualified running mate; I hope this campaign continues to build upon the same sentiment. It will take a broad coalition in November, especially in the midst of unprecedented voter suppression efforts along with the COVID-19 pandemic. And with racial justice at the forefront of our nation’s politics, our nominees must work with those who have been catalysts for this movement—including organizations like the Working Families Party, the Movement for Black Lives, and Black Womxn For.

Because that’s the beautiful thing about democracy when it works—our elected officials work for us. The people. The people who demand universal child care. Medicare for All. Eradication of poverty. A Green New Deal. Criminal justice reform. Canceled student debt. And we hold them accountable.

And they are shook. Trump, Pence, Barr. All of ‘em. Shooketh.

As Warren, my former boss, said, Harris is an inspiration to the many women who see ourselves within her, and most importantly, she is unafraid. Like Warren, and everyone else who remembers Harris during the Barr hearings, we’ve got our popcorn ready for the vice presidential debate in October.

But, “Black women, please brace yourselves. It is about to get so ugly. We are so hated, and anytime we are centered, we get vitriol from all sides. Remember what dude said about Tubman just a couple of weeks ago? Get ready,” my sister friend Jamilah Lemieux noted on Twitter.

The misogynoir that will be unleashed is only just beginning. It is on us to push back against these attacks and ensure the protection every Black woman and girl deserves—especially one fighting to represent us at the highest ranks of our government.

For the political media covering this election—which is overwhelmingly white and male—it’s time to hand the pen and microphone over to the Black people and women in the newsroom. And if you have a Black woman on your team, you may want to put her on this beat because no one will be able to capture the dynamics or nuance of this historic campaign like her. No matter how much you try to learn about the Mecca that is Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha (or the Ks), and Beyoncé, your experience won’t rise to the moment within our culture that is required for this coverage. This is literally like a dream where Ida B. Wells could have covered Barbara Lee and Shirley Chisholm.

This Delta is looking forward to saying Madam Vice President.

Supreme Court Decision on Birth Control Is a Threat to Women With Chronic Illness

I’m in a relationship with my birth control, and, yes, it’s serious. I can confidently say hormonal birth control made me a healthier, more capable person—and my decision to take it had nothing to do with preventing pregnancy.

While birth control is often touted as pregnancy prevention, the role it plays in a person’s life can go beyond family planning. Far more than a one-trick contraceptive pony, birth control brings relief for pain brought on by chronic medical conditions. That’s why last month’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania that the Trump administration has the power to allow employers to opt out of providing birth control coverage for religious and moral reasons was such a callous attack on the health of chronically ill people.

Before I started taking birth control, my periods were miserable. My period experience involved being doubled over in pain, suffering bouts of depression, and sneaking a heating pad in between work meetings for relief. Rather than going through a normal menstrual cycle, I often felt radiating pain that left me lethargic and, ultimately, depressed.

I was caught in a swirling vortex of anxiety and hopelessness. One or two weeks before each period, I would find myself crying unexplained tears while browsing grocery store aisles, escaping to the office bathroom, or watching Netflix—no mundane task was safe. Even on days when I felt composed, a seed of doubt would often plant itself in my mind and deteriorate my mood.

My experience didn’t resemble the tropes—sobbing at sappy commercials or craving chocolate—usually associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), often in ways that diminish the experience of those suffering from PMS. Once my period came, the symptoms would disappear within 24 hours, leaving me wondering if the pain I had felt was some kind of fever dream. It was a perplexing cycle that left me without answers.

While a majority of people who menstruate deal with PMS symptoms like cramping, breast tenderness, food cravings, and fatigue, some experience an intensified version called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), an entirely different monster. According to the federal Office on Women’s Health, five percent of menstruating people suffer from PMDD. The two conditions overlap, but PMDD can cause emotional and physical symptoms that are particularly draining. Thankfully, hormonal birth control can help mitigate the condition.

As a teenager, my opinion of birth control was poorly informed by mediocre sex education and puritanical stigma. Gossip spreads through small cities like wildfire, and hearing about a teenage girl on birth control in my hometown would have set suburban moms ablaze. I avoided contraceptives out of fear of judgment, myths of weight gain, and the false narrative that birth control meant you were “promiscuous” and less “wholesome.”

When I finally decided to try hormonal birth control at 27, I underestimated just how crucial it would be to my happiness. The weeks that were once controlled by intense discomfort soon became a mere few days of light cramping. I no longer signed away three weeks of my life per month to my reproductive system. My period stopped dictating my life entirely.

People use birth control for myriad noncontraceptive reasons including PMS, acne, and chronic illnesses like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. According to Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of primary and trans care at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, hormonal birth control has been shown to reduce the incidence of endometrial and ovarian cancers, ovarian cysts, and iron deficiency anemia. 

I wanted to talk to a couple people who use birth control for chronic illness to learn just how crucial it is to their health, so I started close to home.

Chelsea Quinn, a childhood friend of mine, first started experiencing painful ovarian cysts when we were in middle school and was prescribed birth control to keep the cysts from growing. When she tried to get off contraceptives in her early twenties, she immediately felt unlike herself.

“Those few months were absolutely miserable,” she told me. “I felt emotionally unstable, got PMS symptoms but never got my period, could not stop crying, and had horrible pain that made me unable to get out of bed for days at a time.” 

After being diagnosed with PCOS, a medical condition that can lead to ovarian cysts and infertility, birth control became Quinn’s means to a healthier life. In her eyes, the pill may only be one step towards healing, but it has “evened the playing field.” 

“I cannot imagine what my life would be without birth control,” she said.

I also spoke with Michelle Juergen, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, who found herself fighting a chronic illness she knew little about. In 2019, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful disorder where bits of the tissue that line the uterus grow elsewhere. “My body felt like every inch had been slammed into a wall,” she told me. “I could barely have a conversation because I was so focused on managing pain.”

After her doctor’s recommendation, Juergen underwent surgery for her endometriosis in December. “While it wasn’t a cure-all, it definitely helped dial back the pain,” she said. Birth control allows her to help minimize the chance of her endometriosis symptoms returning.

Calling contraceptives life-changing is an understatement. Adding a barrier to health care that is critical for people suffering from chronic illness to function isn’t just cruel; it’s a form of institutionalized discrimination.

And the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to care.

How Teens Can Get Birth Control Without Their Parents Finding Out—Even in a Pandemic

Only around two dozen states explicitly allow all people under 18 to access birth control without first getting a parent’s consent. Texas, where I work with teens struggling to find reproductive health care, is not one of them.

As the program and operations coordinator at Jane’s Due Process, I’m familiar with the unnecessary barriers to accessing reproductive health services in Texas—like a 24-hour mandated waiting period between an ultrasound and an abortion appointment, or a parental consent requirement for minors getting an abortion. Attempting to access any of these services as a teen is tough, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At Jane’s Due Process, we help teens access abortion services without parental consent. And for those who need contraception without getting their parents involved, we operate a text line that connects teens in Texas and beyond to the nearest clinic that’s part of Title X, the federally funded program started in 1970 to provide comprehensive and confidential family planning services.

These Title X clinics are essentially the “loophole” for teens to access birth control, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing and treatment, and other family planning services in states like Texas. No person is turned away for services—like birth control, pregnancy testing, STI testing, and more—regardless of age, income, or citizenship status.

But Title X-funded clinics are now prohibited from referring patients to abortion services, thanks to the Trump administration’s domestic “gag rule,” which means fewer clinics are participating in the program.

The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), a project at the University of Texas at Austin studying the impact of legislation on reproductive health, released a study in February showing that changes to Title X funding increased barriers to birth control access for Texas teens. In 2011, the state passed legislation to cut Planned Parenthood out of Title X, which created confusion for both teens and providers alike, making it harder to navigate the labyrinth of rules regarding minors’ ability to consent to their own birth control.

“Accessing sexual health care is important for me personally because many people I know have had so many scares—whether it be pregnancy or STDs,” said Emma Jones, a youth advocate who texted the Jane’s Due Process hotline to find a Title X clinic this year. “Not having access to the medical attention I need has been very stressful and has caused me to have medical problems related to anxiety.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already hearing how difficult it was for teens to travel to their appointments, and the pandemic is making access even more difficult. Teens who live within a few miles of a clinic might be able to access the free and confidential services they need, but others have to travel over 50 miles to get care.

The teens who text us face unique barriers like lack of transportation, money for bus fare, or even an excuse to leave the house. Some feel they have no way of getting to a Title X clinic without their parents finding out; in some cases, parents are violating their privacy by installing tracking apps like Life360. Teens used to have excuses to leave the house, like going to a friend’s house or staying late after school, but the reality of the pandemic has taken away all possibility of leaving the house for many.

Volunteers at the Jane’s Due Process text line are trained to help teens strategize how to access the care they need. We locate their closest Title X clinic based on ZIP code and inform them that they’re entitled to confidential services without their parents finding out. We even suggest the best language to use when scheduling an appointment for a more seamless experience.

For teens experiencing transportation barriers, we sometimes help them Google bus routes or we talk about whether there’s a trustworthy person in their life who might give them a ride.

If a Title X clinic isn’t nearby, we let them know they can purchase emergency contraception through Amazon or at grocery stores and pharmacies (including the pharmacy drive-through). As with condoms, there’s no minimum age to buy emergency contraception. When accessing condoms in person isn’t an option, we refer them to Texas Wears Condoms, an organization that ships free condoms and lube in a discreet envelope right to your door.

But it’s frustrating to settle for these options that may not be as effective as other types of contraceptives that young people would prefer to use. They deserve access to the same methods others do.

Large areas of Texas are birth control deserts. The pandemic proves that teens need more than access to Title X clinics—especially when it can be significantly more limited depending on where the young person lives or who they live with. We need to demand our local officials repeal parental involvement laws for reproductive health care, remove restrictions on telemedicine in order to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and trust young people to make these decisions for themselves.

Teens can text Jane’s Due Process at 866-999-5263 every day between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Central Time to speak with one of our passionate, trained volunteers to learn more about their options.

Muslims Have a Right to Contraception. Why Can Evangelical Bosses Take That Away?

It’s been a month since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers can deny their workers birth control coverage on religious or moral grounds.

Under the ruling, which was decided by a 7-2 vote, as many as 125,000 women will lose previously mandated contraceptive coverage while in the middle of a triple pandemic, as the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic recession, and racism are at their peak. This decision is one of many that upholds employers’ rights to deny health-care protections to historically vulnerable communities.

As the director of HEART, a national reproductive justice organization serving Muslim communities that will inevitably be affected by this decision, I am deeply disturbed by the continued trend of vulnerable communities’ rights being ignored under the pretense of “religious freedom.”

My journey to feeling a sense of self-determination over my body and reproductive health began when I was in elementary school, attending sex education classes and voraciously reading as many resources as I had access to. As I grew older, I started exploring how my cultural and faith identity fit into all of it—and realized much of the information and discourse fell short.

In mainstream spaces, the discourse exoticized and otherized—and often policed—people who looked like me, challenging whether sex positivity was even possible in a perceived conservative faith community. Meanwhile, religious spaces often shamed and judged Muslim women for their sexual health experiences.

And yet my traditional religious education had given me enough understanding of the faith to know that Islam was not in conflict with empowered decision-making about sexual and reproductive health. HEART was founded to uplift this very notion, and to ensure all Muslims have access to the information they need in a way that considers all their identities, including their religious identity.

As a Muslim woman, I have had the particular privilege of accessing health care when I needed it, in a way that also respected my faith practice. This included being able to safely secure birth control whenever I needed, allowing me to parent the three beautiful children that I now have. I can safely say I’m done. My eldest daughter just turned 16, and when I think about the future that I want for her, it centers on choice: the choice to parent, or not to parent, how to parent, and most importantly, when to parent.

It is time we also recognize how faith can be used as a tool for decision-making in positive ways.

If my daughter chooses to wait to parent, I want her to have the knowledge, resources, and birth control access to do so. I want her to understand that our faith affirms that right to choose. Islam does not value her as a Muslim based on her parental status. Islam affirms the rights of couples to have sex for pleasure, not just for reproduction. Islam encourages Muslims to take care of their bodies, including their sexual health, and sometimes this can mean taking birth control.

I want her to know that protecting her religious freedom means protecting her right to access birth control at every stage of her life.

My faith is not a monolith. No faith is. With every religious doctrine, there are multiple interpretations of the text and endless ways to practice that faith. Even within my family of five, we each approach our faith in nuanced ways according to our personal understandings of doctrine. As such, there is a wide range of religious opinions that uphold the permissibility of birth control in Islam. The beauty of that diversity of opinion is that it encourages choice: the ability to make a decision that aligns with your faith values, not one dictated by your employer or government.

Yet I would be remiss not to acknowledge the difficulties my communities continue to face when it comes to feeling safe to practice our religion in this country. Muslims across the nation have experienced the impacts of Islamophobia. For that to permeate into our health-care decision-making is another example of how this country continues to deny Muslims space to live freely.

We know our reproductive rights continue to be at risk of being trampled: We’re already seeing it with this recent Supreme Court vote. We can expect local governments to follow suit and double down on restrictions. In a time when religion is often perceived as a tool of oppression and has been in the hands of white cis men, it is time we also recognize how faith can be used as a tool for decision-making in positive ways and create space for Muslims to live freely.

As one of the most critical elections of this century approaches, we hope to mobilize our communities and bring attention to the intersection of reproductive rights, faith, Islamophobia, and anti-Blackness.

In an era of heightened Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, and violence against Muslims, this Supreme Court decision only makes access to contraception for those who want it even harder and places an additional burden on Muslim people seeking care.

True liberation can only exist when we actively work to dismantle the structures that have created these social injustices. We have an opportunity to work toward this shared vision of liberation: where Muslims are no longer othered, our rights are no longer restricted, and our ability to practice Islam is protected. Our choice is protected.

What’s Next for Your Birth Control Coverage After ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’

The birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is one of the most important nondiscrimination provisions of the health-care law. The benefit requires that employer-provided health plans treat contraception like all other preventive medicine and cover it with no additional costs or co-pays to employees.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration could allow employers to opt out of providing that birth control coverage in their employee health plans if the employer had a religious or moral objection, it threatened the birth control coverage of millions of employees and students across the country. It left many with the same question: Now what?

Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), walked us through some basic birth control benefit facts you may be wondering about.

Rewire.News: How can an employee find out if their health insurance plan covers contraception?

NWLC: Your HR or benefits staff at work should have answers to this question. But we understand that it may not be comfortable to ask that question of your employer, or if your insurance is through a spouse or parent’s employer it may not be possible.

You can also look at your health insurance documents—you have a right to access the full coverage documents at any time. You can search the documents to see if there are coverage exceptions—I recommend using the search terms “contracept” “family planning” and “birth control” because different documents might use different terms.

If an employer health plan covers contraception, how worried should employees be? Is there anything employees can do to make sure employers that cover contraception continue to do so?

NWLC: The good news is that most people will still have birth control after this decision because most employers want to cover it. Over 61 million women have birth control coverage thanks to the birth control benefit—but we anticipate several hundred thousand people will lose coverage as a result of the Trump birth control rules. If you currently have birth control coverage in an employer health plan, most plans will be required to provide you with a notice if they drop coverage, so pay close attention to letters or other communications from the insurance company.

Employees can talk to the benefits team and share that they are encouraged to see the continued birth control coverage. These comments can both help the benefits team know what employees want and motivate them should management consider a coverage change.

If an employer plan doesn’t cover contraception, what if anything can the employees do about it?

NWLC: Because there is no list of all employers that exclude contraception, it is important for employees to share this information with others so they can know as well. The NWLC operates a hotline called CoverHer, and we can talk with employees about their situation. Employees can also let people know through employer-review websites like Glassdoor, so that people job searching will know about this problem before they decide about a job there.

What’s next in the fight over the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act?

NWLC: This fight is definitely not over. The Supreme Court remanded Pennsylvania’s case back to the lower courts because there are claims that are still to be decided. And there are also cases brought by California and Massachusetts, as well as one in which we, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Center for Reproductive Rights represent a student group, Irish 4 Reproductive Health, that had been stayed pending the Supreme Court decision. Each of these cases is now moving forward, and a lower court could stop the Trump birth control rules in any of them.

Medical Students Can’t Provide Abortions If They Never Learn How

Brienna Milleson was a medical student working at the free clinic at Saint Louis University two years ago when a woman came in seeking a pregnancy test. It was positive, and the woman wasn’t sure whether she wanted to keep the pregnancy—a position many pregnant people are in each year. She wanted her doctor to explain her options.

Milleson didn’t know what to say to her, as her two years of medical school had never covered abortion, a procedure so common that 1 in 4 women have it by the time they’re 45. The more experienced student on duty didn’t know how to handle the situation either.

“I was just totally unprepared for this poor woman,” Milleson said. “I had no idea what to tell her.”

Milleson said her classes gave little detail about abortion. Abortion was mentioned in an ethics class, but the OB-GYN module did not go over common procedures. Saint Louis University is a Jesuit institution in Missouri, a state with a single abortion clinic also in St. Louis. It nearly became the first state with no abortion clinics until the health department relented in June and granted the remaining clinic a license, ending over a year of limbo.

This lack of training on abortion at medical schools is not unusual. In a recent study for Obstetrics & Gynecology, researchers spoke to directors at 169 OB-GYN programs about their institutions’ abortion policies. A majority, 57 percent, indicated their institution’s restrictions on abortion went beyond what state law requires.

In many cases, providers in the study reported that policies were unclear, as Milleson experienced, although it didn’t attempt to quantify how often that occurred. The study also found that a significant number of policies are unwritten: About one-third of teaching hospitals had tacit restrictions; another third of institutions had written policies.

These implied policies were a double-edged sword. “Vague or unwritten abortion policies, although difficult to navigate, gave health care providers some agency and flexibility over their practices,” the researchers wrote.

Lori Freedman, associate professor at University of California, San Francisco and one of the authors of the study, said the survey results reflect the stigmatization and politicization of abortion.

“When [abortion] became legal initially, hospitals and practices did do abortions. … Many doctors stopped providing, and the people filling that gap were the family planning clinics,” she said.

This politicization meant that, while more than half of abortions took place in hospitals right after Roe v. Wade made abortion a constitutional right, less than 14 percent did by 1989, according to Eyal Press’ 2006 book Absolute Convictions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 95 percent of abortions took place in clinics in 2017. Although the lack of availability of hospital abortions can harm patients who need inpatient care, Freedman said that many times, having an abortion in a hospital isn’t necessary.

Inadequate training in abortion can also affect students’ training in miscarriage management, as many patients who miscarry need to be treated with the same procedures used in abortion, said Amy Caldwell, a clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago hospital limits abortions to 24 weeks as a matter of practice.

“Personally, I think it is incredibly important for medical students to have experience with abortion care as it is one of the most common procedures women in the U.S. experience (second perhaps to cesarean section),” Caldwell said. “Regardless of what type of medicine a medical student goes into, it is almost certain they will end up caring for patients with a history of abortion.”

While Catholic institutions have received a lot of attention over their strict restrictions on abortion, contraception, and gender-affirming care, they are not alone. Only 5 percent of the teaching hospitals surveyed were Catholic, meaning the vast majority of those with additional restrictions were non-Catholic.

The study didn’t ask about any religious affiliations other than with the Catholic church, but it did ask respondents what they believed to be the motivation for their hospital’s restrictions. About half said it was “personal beliefs or comfort.”

“Regardless of what type of medicine a medical student goes into, it is almost certain they will end up caring for patients with a history of abortion.”
-Amy Caldwell, University of Chicago

Stories like Milleson’s illustrate how restrictions can prevent medical professionals, including those who strongly believe in reproductive rights, from providing good care. Restrictions can also affect the readiness of more senior providers. Lee Hasselbacher, senior policy researcher at the University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health, said she’s spoken to providers who want to provide abortions but don’t, even in situations when it’s allowed, because they don’t have experience in the procedure. Instead, they refer patients to a hospital or clinic that doesn’t have anti-choice restrictions.

Beyond the limits in training, Milleson noted some of her professors seem to not only object to abortion but also judge patients who’ve had one. A medical history for a patient seeking gynecological or obstetric care routinely includes their history of pregnancy and abortion. She worries how much of that attitude influences her classmates.

“Are they going to treat someone differently [if] they’ve had several abortions before?” she said. “It’s a legitimate concern of mine and several of my classmates.”

Milleson is currently undecided about her specialty, and doesn’t think the lack of instruction in abortion will necessarily limit her future options. Still, she worries that the anti-choice atmosphere will affect her OB-GYN rotation.

“A good or bad rotation can make or break your aspirations for a particular specialty,” she said.

Meanwhile, as a member of Medical Students for Choice, Milleson and other pro-choice medical students at Saint Louis University are working on getting official recognition for their chapter, which would let them do basic things like announce meetings via official mailing lists. The stigma against abortion means they have to take care to not ask the wrong professor to be their adviser.

The stigma affects faculty members as well. Hasselbacher spoke to a provider at a Protestant medical system who said the institution’s policies and attitudes interfered with the instruction they offer.

“When they give lectures on pregnancy loss and termination, they were very careful about how they talked about it and felt like they always had to be walking on eggshells a little bit so they weren’t going too far and [saying something] they might get reprimanded for,” she said.