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Obamacare Lives as Republicans Yank Unpopular Health-Care Bill

False Witnesses

Obamacare Lives as Republicans Yank Unpopular Health-Care Bill

Congressional Republican leaders’ last-minute withdrawal of their embattled Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA) on Friday delivered a stunning legislative defeat to the GOP and President Donald Trump over their mutual vow to repeal Obamacare.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives walked away from their bill seven years and one day after President Obama signed his signature health-care reform law. With Obamacare the law of the land, Trump, who campaigned heavily on repeal, fell short in his first 100 days in office.

Trump gave House Republicans an ultimatum on Thursday evening: Hold a vote on Friday or prepare to leave Obamacare in place—indefinitely. But after a fraught day of “will they, won’t they” negotiations on Capitol Hill and at the White House, GOP leaders still couldn’t muster the 215 votes needed for passage.

Trump then backtracked, reportedly telling House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to pull the bill shortly before the vote was set to begin. Ryan cast the decision as his own during a late-afternoon press conference.

Pulling the AHCA keeps the current version on life support while Republicans plot the way forward. Had it been voted down, the House would have had to start over on a new sweeping repeal-and-replace plan or attempt more piecemeal efforts.

Even so, the current form is effectively dead.

“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan said at the Friday press conference.

The AHCA was widely seen as dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate despite needing a simple 51-vote majority to pass, using a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation. A handful of rank-and-file Senate Republicans opposed the bill’s initial plan to end Medicaid expansion in 2020, which was later revised to end in 2018. And conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) didn’t think “Obamacare Lite” went far enough.

House GOP leaders piled on sweeteners to draw support from the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, along with virulent anti-choice members who wanted the National Right to Life-endorsed legislation to double down on abortion restrictions. Ryan agreed Monday to hasten the demise of Medicaid expansion and by Wednesday, to sacrifice guaranteed maternity care and other “essential health benefits” in an effort to bring aboard more of the holdouts.

The concessions weren’t enough to appease Freedom Caucus members demanding an end to still more popular Obamacare requirements, such as covering people with preexisting conditions and allowing people to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26.

Trump tried to remind Freedom Caucus members that passing the bill was their only shot at “defunding” Planned Parenthood for one year—in other words, cutting off Medicaid beneficiaries from obtaining quality, affordable health care from the organization’s affiliates.

The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!” he said in a tweet.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America slammed the president for playing politics on social media.

“Negotiating away access to cancer screenings, birth control and maternity care is not ‘pro-life,’ it’s cruel,” Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens said in a statement.

Freedom Caucus members may have been willing to take the political gamble thanks to powerful conservative allies. The billionaire Koch brothers were prepared to spend millions to shield congressional Republicans who vote against “Obamacare 2.0” from the White House’s wrath.

Ryan and company alienated moderate Republicans who informally caucus as the Tuesday Group. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), one of just two Republicans last month to vote against shredding Obama-era family planning protections, predicted that “this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low-to-moderate income and older individuals.”

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said the potential loss of health-care coverage was why he would vote “no” on the AHCA.

“Unfortunately, the legislation before the House today is currently unacceptable as it would place significant new costs and barriers to care on my constituents,” Frelinghuysen said in a statement. “In addition to the loss of Medicaid coverage for so many people in my Medicaid-dependent state, the denial of essential health benefits in the individual market raise serious coverage and cost issues.”

Reproductive rights advocates expressed relief at the bill’s de facto defeat.

National Partnership for Women & Families President Debra Ness called the failure of the AHCA “a victory for women’s health and women’s access to care.”

Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, echoed that sentiment.

“Today was a triumph over those who would have put women’s lives, health, and economic security at risk in the name of ‘reform,’ including blocking access to abortion, and stripping women of maternity coverage,” Borchelt said in a statement. “President Trump should keep his word that Congress should ‘move on’ if this attempt at repeal failed.”

Virginia Governor Puts Kibosh on GOP’s Religious Imposition Bills

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) broke the state’s veto record on Thursday after striking down two identical Republican bills that would have sanctioned discrimination against the state’s LGBTQ community.

McAuliffe said in a statement that the religious imposition measures, SB 1324 and HB 2025, would have protected from civil liability those who actively discriminate against same-sex couples. The legislation, he said, was nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize people and would hurt the state’s economy.

“We should be pursuing policies to make Virginia a more vibrant and welcoming place to live, work, and raise a family,” McAuliffe said.

Former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore had set a 90-veto record that McAuliffe broke with his vetoes of the religious imposition bills, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Other recent vetoes by McAuliffe include HB 2264, which would have defunded Planned Parenthood in Virginia, as Rewire reported. The governor had vetoed a similar bill, HB 1090, in 2016.

McAuliffe in January vowed to veto an unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban if it landed on his desk.

Both bills, like similar legislation proposed by GOP lawmakers in Michigan and Iowa, would have prohibited the state from providing grants or contracting with entities that offer abortion care or maintain facilities where abortions are performed.

While Democrats control the executive branch in Virginia, Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of the general assembly. Lawmakers will reconvene in April, though Republicans lack the majorities needed to override a veto. McAuliffe has never had a veto overridden, the Times-Dispatch reported.

McAuliffe’s term began in 2014. A state law banning consecutive terms prohibits him from seeking re-election.

Trump Puts Anti-LGBTQ Activist in Charge of Civil Rights Office

The Trump administration’s attacks on LGBTQ rights continued this week with the appointment of Roger Severino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, which was established to ensure “fundamental nondiscrimination and health information privacy rights.” 

Severino is a longtime anti-LGBTQ activist who served as the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus denounced Trump’s appointment of Severino. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) said in a statement that the appointment of Severino is “another warning shot” to those who support equal rights for LGBTQ people. 

“Mr. Severino has built a career on demonizing the transgender community, stoking fear about transgender identity, and—in particular—undermining equal access to health care,” Kennedy said. “It’s clear the President has no intention of keeping the promises he made to LGBTQ Americans.”

The Severino appointment is the White House’s latest move to ally with those hostile to LGBTQ rights. The State Department announced last week that an official from the Center for Family & Human Rights, a designated a hate group due to its extreme anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, would represent the United States as a delegate at a United Nations event. It was revealed this week that the president’s cabinet-level agencies are working to undermine protections for the nation’s most vulnerable LGBTQ populations, almost a month after Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos jointly rescinded Obama-era protections for transgender students under Title IX.

Severino co-authored a Heritage Foundation report that criticized a proposed Obama administration rule to prevent health-care discrimination against transgender patients. Severino claimed protections for transgender people would “penalize medical professionals and health care organizations that, as a matter of faith, moral conviction, or professional medical judgment, believe that maleness and femaleness are biological realities to be respected and affirmed, not altered or treated as diseases.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement that the Trump administration has “once again put the fox in charge of the hen house,” by appointing someone to a government agency who directly opposes the agency’s mission.

“He has made attacking women’s and LGBT people’s access to health care one of the centerpieces of his career, while his baseless claims about protections for transgender people—repeated over and over without any regard for the consequences on transgender people’s lives—betray a fundamental misunderstanding of federal civil rights laws, medical science, the reality of what it means to be transgender,” Keisling said.

Severino has written articles for the Daily Signal, a Heritage Foundation’s blog, using that platform to criticize the military’s transgender inclusive policy as a “radical new gender ideology.” He panned the Department of Justice lawsuit against North Carolina’s anti-transgender HB 2 law as an “unprecedented overreach.”

Severino has been hostile towards reproductive rights. He wrote that in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a “reasonable law intended to protect women from conditions like those found at the Gosnell clinic.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that the Office for Civil Rights is “essential to ensuring that all people can lead healthy lives, free of discriminatory barriers,” and that Severino is the wrong person to head that office.

“This appointment, made without fanfare, is part of disturbing trend by the Trump administration of naming people who disagree or outright oppose the mission or role of an agency or office to leadership positions within those entities,” Henderson said. “Absent a change by Congress, these offices and their leaders have an obligation to serve the American people, consistent with their mandate.”

Black Women Stand to Lose the Most Under the GOP Health Plan

After accounting for amendments to the American Health Care Act (AHCA) currently being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives, the latest estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the GOP’s plan still would increase the number of uninsured people in the country to 24 million by 2026.

Even before CBO released its initial report, health policy experts and pundits across the board were warning that more people will be left without insurance than ever before under the GOP’s health bill.

“To be okay with 24 million people not having access to the care they need amounts to nothing more than a blatant disregard for the lives of Americans,” said the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a D.C.-based advocacy organization, in a recent email. “By moving forward with this repeal legislation, Congress is sending a message to the American people that their health is secondary to savings in the federal budget.”

While there may be some debate among Republicans over the AHCA’s ultimate impact on people around the country, it is clear that older, sicker, and poorer Americans—especially those who are Black—will fare worse under President Donald Trump’s plan than under former President Barack Obama’s. And with news that Republicans in the House are willing to drop “essential health benefits,” including pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care, which qualified health plans in the marketplace must currently cover, it’s clear Black women stand to lose more than most under the AHCA.

As numerous studies show, Black women “bear the greatest risk for maternal death.” The reproductive injustices we experience begin in the clinic, extend to the hospital, and are exacerbated by a proliferation of low-quality health-care providers in racially segregated communities. Health policy decisions are a literal life-or-death issue for us. So when Trump and his administration are making plans to “have insurance for everybody,” he needs to mean us too.

Despite Trump’s critique of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law known as Obamacare benefited millions of people. In 2010, the uninsured rate for Black Americans was 27.2 percent. Under Obama’s plan, it dropped to 15.1 percent by 2016.

Proponents of the AHCA argue the bill will help people buy their own insurance by offering them tax credits. However, the amount each person will receive is largely determined by their age. Thus, a 60-year-old making $20,000 a year could qualify for the same amount of aid as a 60-year-old making $55,000. Health care will become even less available to poor and vulnerable populations than it’s ever been, as the credit system seems to overlook key factors that reduced out-of-pocket expenses for individuals and families under Obamacare.

Aside from the ACHA’s glaring discrepancy in its consideration of people with low incomes, the proposal does not fulfill any of President Trump’s campaign promises. A significant portion of the bill deals with Medicaid, ending the expansion that was put in place under Obamacare, and changing how the program is paid for. Under the AHCA, federal spending will be provided on a per-capita basis, which would gradually shrink the program as it stands today.

The most vulnerable of our nation are sure to be negatively affected. If Medicaid expansion and help from the marketplace are repealed or modified, millions risk losing their health-care access, primarily people of color, low-income people, and those who are unemployed, according to health policy experts.

Medicaid covers a wide array of services, such as family planning, prenatal care, childbirth, and health screenings, and, some states’ funds cover abortion. Women comprise about 68 percent of Medicaid enrollees. And as many as 30 percent of all Black women rely on Medicaid for their health care. The AHCA would end or substantially reduce access to health-care services for many of these women.

One of the AHCA’s most maligned targets is Planned Parenthood. The health-care provider primarily serves low-income patients, and 27.4 percent of Black people live in poverty. Roughly 20 percent of women in the United States will use Planned Parenthood’s services at some point in their lives.

Although Planned Parenthood is already prohibited from using federal funding for abortions, the AHCA strips the organization of Medicaid reimbursements for one year. This so-called defunding would bar Medicaid recipients from using public insurance at Planned Parenthood to access a wide range of services, including preventive services like Pap smears, contraception, and sexually transmitted infection testing.

Within the first year of the AHCA’s enactment, nearly 400,000 women would have to go without preventive care, and another 650,000 would only have access to a significantly reduced level of care. This means that hundreds of thousands of women would lose access to cancer screenings and other services that would increase their health outcomes, well-being, and overall quality of life. Black women, in particular, are more than 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than other women, in addition to facing other health disparities. 

With the loss of critical services currently insured by Medicaid coverage of family planning services, Black women are left especially vulnerable. Another significant health issue disproportionately faced by Black women is the development of uterine fibroids. Approximately 80 percent of Black women will have them by age 50. With routine screenings, such as the ones provided by Planned Parenthood and independent reproductive health-care clinics, uterine fibroids are fairly easy to treat and are less likely to leave a serious impact on women’s lives. Without such screenings, however, uterine fibroids can increase in size and lead to other health complications down the line.

Additionally, Black trans women are likely to bear the brunt of the AHCA’s disastrous effects. Some 34 percent of Black trans people earn less than $10,000 annually, which already makes insurance premiums and health-care costs not currently covered by Medicaid staggeringly out of reach.

Twenty percent of Black trans people reported being uninsured in the National Center for Transgender Equality’s most recent survey. Overall, 34 percent of Black trans people reported having one or more negative experience with a health-care provider. And in a different study, 21 percent of Black trans people reported having been refused medical care because of transphobic bias. As resources that are uniquely poised to cater to diverse communities risk being cut under the AHCA, Black trans women are more at risk than ever.

Access to basic health care is an internationally recognized right, according to the World Health Organization. But some people believe otherwise, such as Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who told NPR that he does “not believe that the federal government role is to provide health care for the individual.”

It is no secret that access to health care leads to healthier and more vibrant communities. Yet the AHCA’s hollow promise leaves many people out in the cold. And as is often the case, those who will be hurt the most are Black women who rely on Medicaid or help from the marketplace to get the coverage we need.

Arkansas’ Sex-Selection Abortion Ban Would Discriminate Against Asian American Women

Following Wednesday’s session, Arkansas is now one step away from enacting the first sex-selection abortion ban of 2017. Both the Arkansas house and senate voted to approve the bill, sending it to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk. Should the governor sign the bill, Arkansas would become the eighth state with a sex-selection abortion ban in effect come January 2018.

Arkansas’ HB 1434, the Sex Discrimination by Abortion Prohibition Act, would make it illegal for providers to offer abortion services if they even suspect that an abortion is sought due to a sex preference. The ban will ultimately target Asian American women, because such policies are based on the antiquated and false idea that Asian Americans prefer sons over daughters. If signed into law, this bill could lead to Asian American women being denied abortion services because of their ethnic identity.

Asian American women, like everyone else, should be trusted to make their own reproductive health-care choices.

Furthermore, there is no proof that sex-selective abortions happen widely in the United States. The University of Chicago Law School has debunked such gender preference myths in Asian American families. Its 2014 report found six inaccuracies commonly associated with bans like the one approved by Arkansas lawmakers, including the myth that such laws are an effective way to prevent sex selection and adjust male-biased sex ratios. The report noted, “Our empirical analysis of sex ratios at birth five years before and after sex-selective abortion bans were enacted in Illinois and Pennsylvania indicates that the bans were not associated with changes in sex ratios at birth.”

In fact, “sex-selective abortion bans have had no impact on sex ratios at birth in two states in which they were enacted,” wrote the report’s authors.

Asian American people are not fooled.

Sex-selection bans are extremely harmful. Under the cloak of gender nondiscrimination, HB 1434 offers politicians a way to chip away at the legal right to abortion.

HB 1434 will turn Asian American people seeking reproductive health services into suspects and reproductive health-care providers into investigators. It will force physicians to scrutinize Asian American people out of fear of fines and criminalization, and it will further stigmatize their patients while creating additional barriers to care.

Earlier this year, Arkansas enacted HB 1032, the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, a law that allows men to block their partners’ abortions. The state legislature also has continued to push forward and advance anti-transgender legislation. And Gov. Hutchinson has tried in the past to block Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood and attempted to institute an unconstitutional 12-week abortion ban.

Make no mistake about it: Arkansas’ politicians are not fighting for gender equity. They are advancing their own political agenda, without consideration for how it will affect the thousands of Asian American women and families in their state.

While HB 1434 is solely a sex-selection abortion ban, other states—including Illinois, Missouri, Oregon, and Rhode Island—have introduced similar legislation. Some of these bills also include race-selection and genetic anomaly provisions.

Asian American communities are watching. We refuse to be silent as state legislators use false stereotypes and misleading language to deny Asian American women the same access to safe, confidential, and comprehensive reproductive care as anyone else. Not only is it offensive, it is also unconstitutional.

Kentucky Governor Signs Redundant ‘Blue Lives Matter’ Law

Kentucky joined Louisiana this week after Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed a “Blue Lives Matter” law that would give hate crime protections to police and emergency responders.

The bill, set to go into effect July 1, adds emergency responders and police to a hate crime designation lawmakers originally created to protect people targeted because of their race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation.

The law defines hate crimes to include offenses committed against a person because of their “actual or perceived employment as a city, county, state, or federal peace officer, member of an organized fire department” or emergency medical services personnel.

Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Louisville’s Black Lives Matter chapter, panned the Republican push to give hate crime protection to police in an interview with WFPL.

“They hate us so much that they need hate crime protection. So underneath this law now, they get hate crime protection as if anybody’s out here targeting them,” Helm said.

The GOP-backed HB 14 would allow judges and parole boards more discretion during sentencing or denying parole, the local NPR affiliate, WFPL, reported.

Primary sponsor and state Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher (R-Louisville) pre-filed the legislation, not long after Louisiana Republicans passed a similar measure opponents called ahistorical and redundant. The Kentucky bill garnered support from four Democrats in the state’s GOP-majority house.

Evidence shows violence against police remains at an all-time low.

While the number of officers fatally shot while on duty has declined nationwide in recent years, the overall number of deaths increased only because of traffic accidents, intentional car collisions, and job-related illnesses—not hate crimes or fatal shootings, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund’s 2015 law enforcement fatalities.

Violence against police has declined steadily at least since the Reagan administration, according to data from the Officers Down Memorial Page and the Washington Post. An average of 101 police officers were killed every year during President Reagan’s time in the White House. That number fell to an average of 62 deaths per year under the Obama administration.

The number of officers killed declined by 34 percent between 1987 and 2013, while the number of full-time police officers working in local jurisdictions swelled by 35 percent during the same period, FiveThirtyEight.com reported.

The Louisiana law, signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), made the state the first to designate public safety workers a protected group under hate-crime law, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported.

Louisiana state Rep. Lance Harris (R) cited the death of Houston Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth when speaking about his inspiration behind the bill, USA Today reported.

Legislators in other states, including Mississippi and Wisconsin, have introduced similar “Blue Lives Matter” or “Blue, Red and Med Lives Matter,” bills, which misappropriate the verbiage used by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Amber Duke, spokesperson for the ACLU of Kentucky, told Rewire in an email that the advocacy organization had opposed HB 14 in some form since the measure surfaced last year. ACLU officials testified last year against the bill in a house committee meeting, saying the legislation would give “platitudes to safety” and weaken hate crime protections.

“The bill misunderstands the very purpose of hate crimes—to protect communities that have been marginalized within our society and who are at a higher risk of facing violence simply because of an immutable characteristic they share,” the ACLU of Kentucky statement said.

Kate Miller, advocacy director at the ACLU of Kentucky, noted that Kentucky law already provided enhanced penalties to people who acted violently against cops and other first responders.

HB 14, Miller said, also failed to encourage deeper conversations or require preventive measures such as required training for officers to learn how to avoid dangerous encounters and “de-escalate potentially violent situations.”

Already, states with so-called Blue Lives Matter legislation have begun to charge activists against police brutality with hate crimes for protesting, she said.

The ACLU of Kentucky this month asked Bevin to veto the measure in a letter publicized by USA Today. The Leadership Council and NAACP Legal Defense Fund also wrote letters to Kentucky politicians, urging them oppose or veto HB 14.

Todd A. Cox, policy director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the bill “a particularly disconnected and non-responsive policy choice,” in a letter to state Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville).

Bratcher and two spokespeople for Bevin did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Colorado GOP Official Faces Prison Time on Voter Fraud Charge

A talk-radio host and former Colorado Republican Party chairman, who once said anti-abortion legislation shouldn’t let “the woman off the hook,” was charged Tuesday with voter fraud and forgery.

Steve Curtis has been the subject of national media coverage after KDVR-TV in Denver reported Tuesday that he’d been charged with illegally casting the 2016 ballot of his ex-wife, Kelly Curtis, who lives in South Carolina.

Kelly Curtis told KDVR she was “livid” about the situation, saying her ex-husband’s actions were “demeaning and presumptuous.”

Steve Curtis faces four-and-a-half years of incarceration stemming from the forgery and voter fraud charges.

The conservative radio host covers a range of political topics on his morning show, including election fraud, which, he said last year is mostly committed by Democrats.

“It seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that virtually every case of voter fraud I can remember in my lifetime was committed by Democrats,” Curtis said on air, according to the Colorado Statesman. “Am I on to something here, or do I just not have the facts?”

In fact, voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States, despite allegations from President Trump and others that such widespread fraud is a problem in need of a solution.

Abortion rights are another target on Curtis’ show.

“I get real sketchy when it comes to this idea, in any piece of legislation, of what I would call ‘letting the woman off the hook,’ said KLZ 560-AM radio host Steve Curtis (@21:10) during a show last year. “Because I believe she knows. I believe that there’s no way. We’re half way through 2016. We’ve got YouTube videos galore, and have had for years, where people can see a baby in the womb as early as just a few days in some instances but certainly within a few weeks. And it starts to take that human shape …. I know. So why don’t women know?”

Curtis’ comments about abortion reflect those once articulated by Trump, who told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last March that people who seek abortion care should get “some form of punishment.” Trump took back the statement within hours, saying medical professionals should be held responsible.

Curtis made his own comments about punishment for abortion in a May 2016 show, during which he said (@15:10) he’d “love to see abortion ended, period, no exceptions, no further discussion needed about it.”

Kelly Curtis triggered the investigation into the alleged voter fraud when she asked the Weld County elections office about how she could vote in November after she’d left Colorado, according to KDVR. Election officials concluded that her ballot had been mailed from Steve Curtis’ home town of Firestone and her signature had been forged.

Confronted by KDVR, Curtis refused to answer questions about the allegations against him, but he resigned Tuesday from his radio host job.

Texas Senate Republicans Go on Anti-Choice Spree

The GOP-dominated Texas legislature has shifted focus from passing burdensome regulations targeting abortion providers to advancing bans on abortion care procedures.

Lawmakers in the state senate have passed a handful of anti-choice bills in the past few weeks, though it’s unclear if the measures will be taken up in the house, as the chambers have been in conflict over priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

SB 415, sponsored by state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), would prohibit a so-called dismemberment abortion unless the procedure is, in the bill’s words, “necessary in a medical emergency.” The bill targets the dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure commonly used for miscarriages and abortion care after 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in a statement that the Texas GOP has continued to attack reproductive rights and the doctor-patient relationship. 

“SB 415 is a thinly-veiled attempt to ban abortion, shame Texans who have abortions, and criminalize the safe practice of medicine,” Busby said. “Politicians should leave the practice of medicine to physicians.”

The state senate passed SB 415 on Monday in a 21-9 vote; the vote was mostly along party lines, with state Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) joining Republicans in voting for passage. The bill awaits action by the state house.

Similar bills have been introduced in several states. They are copies of legislation drafted by the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-choice legislation mill.

SB 8, sponsored by state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), would prohibit doctors from performing the intact dilation and evacuation (D and X) abortion procedure, referred to in the bill by the non-medical terminology of “partial-birth abortion.” The D and X abortion procedure, however, is already prohibited by federal law. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was passed by Congress in 2003 and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in the 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart decision.

SB 8 would also ban the sale of fetal tissue, which is already prohibited by federal law, and would impose new regulations and restrictions on the donation of fetal tissue. The bill states that a facility “may not donate human fetal tissue, placenta, or an umbilical cord that is obtained from an elective abortion,” though the bill does not define what constitutes an “elective abortion.”

An amendment was offered by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) that would allow fetal tissue from an “elective abortion” to be donated if the pregnant person “requests that the fetal tissue be donated for use in research.” The amendment was rejected by the senate.

The senate passed SB 8 in a 24-6 vote. Four Democrats joined Republicans in voting in favor of the bill, which now awaits further action by the house.

State Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) entered a statement into the legislative record opposing the bill, criticizing the sponsor’s use of debunked videos by an anti-choice front group as justification for restrictions on fetal tissue donation.  

“We cannot afford to let a visceral response to sensationalized, discredited videos lead us into policy that places an undue burden on women, and compromises their health care,” Rodríguez said.

The senate also voted to pass a pair of bills this week that would restrict insurance coverage of abortion care and allow doctors to lie to patients by withholding information about a pregnancy.

SB 20, sponsored by Sen. Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood), would prohibit a qualified health plan offered through a health benefit exchange, as administered by the federal government or created under the Affordable Care Act, from providing coverage for an abortion unless the abortion is performed due to a medical emergency.

The Texas Senate voted 19 to 10 along party lines to pass SB 20, and the bill awaits a final procedural vote before being sent to the state house.

SB 25, sponsored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), would outlaw “wrongful birth” lawsuits, in which parents sue their doctor for withholding information about potential fetal anomalies that would have led them to terminate a pregnancy rather than carry the pregnancy to term.

The senate on Tuesday voted 21 to 9 along party lines to pass SB 25. The measure now heads to the house. 

Federal Funding for Flint Water Crisis ‘Just a Tiny Start’

Almost three years since lead-tainted water created a public health emergency in Flint, Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved $100 million in federal funds for the city. Residents and activists say the aid package is insufficient. 

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Gary Peters (D-MI), along with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), announced the funding in a statement last week, saying this is “good news for families in Flint who have already waited far too long for their water system to be fixed.”

The money is part of the $170 million package Congress passed at the end of 2016 that activists warned wouldn’t come close to addressing the human costs associated with the manmade lead crisis.

“There’s a lot more money needed to respond to the largest public health disaster in the history of this country,” Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, told Rewire at that time. “The human cost to this is way more than $170 million.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said last year that replacing lead service lines could cost as much as $1.5 billion, and officials expect it could take up to three years to replace pipes for 18,000 to 28,000 homes. The $100 million grant is a “huge benefit” and “much needed,” Weaver said last week in an EPA statement.

“As we prepare to start the next phase of the FAST Start pipe replacement program, these funds will give us what we need to reach our goal of replacing 6,000 pipes this year and make other needed infrastructure improvements,” Weaver said. “We look forward to the continued support of the EPA and federal government.”

The EPA will immediately release $51.5 million—$20 million of which will be provided by the State of Michigan, with the rest coming from federal funds—for lead service line replacements, distribution main improvements, and corrosion control. The remaining $68.5 million in federal emergency funding will come after additional public comment and technical reviews, according to the statement.

The EPA’s state revolving fund, which help with clean-up efforts, is one of the few clean water programs the Trump administration did not slash in its proposed budget for the agency.

“After a hard-fought victory to secure $100 million in assistance last year, the City of Flint will finally begin receiving funding to repair and replace the pipes,” the Michigan congressional Democrats said in their statement. “The people of Flint are strong and resilient, and we will continue to fight for the resources and assistance they need. It’s also past time for the State of Michigan to do everything in its power to meet its responsibilities to help the city recover from this man-made crisis.”

Flint’s health crisis began when state officials switched the city’s water supply in 2014 to save money. Contaminated water from the Flint River was supplied from April 2014 to October 2015, exposing the city’s residents for almost 18 months, according to a class action lawsuit  by residents seeking $722 million in damages.

Flint reverted to buying clean water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in October 2015, but the 539 days of exposure had already ruined the lead service lines, hot water tanks, and other plumbing equipment.

Last month, Flint residents told Rewire that the water in many parts of the city remains smelly, foul colored, and unsafe for drinking, cooking or bathing. The people of Flint also pay among the highest water bills in the country: Residents paid $864.32 yearly for 60,000 gallons of water in 2015, almost three times the national average.

To add insult to injury, the city is planning to shut off the water supply for those who have not paid their bills. Activists protested shutoffs at City Hall last month.

The crisis has resulted in children suffering from lead poisoning and 12 people dead from Legionnaires’ disease, according to the New York Times.

For many in the largely Black, low-income city who continue to feel the devastating effects of the crisis, this funding is too little, too late. The Trump administration’s silence on the issue has not helped allay fears that there is no end in sight to the Flint water crisis.

Karina Petri, founder of the grassroots organization Project Flint, told Rewire in a phone interview that she is concerned about the money, given Flint’s corrupt government and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s apathy about the water poisoning.

“The funding is of concern as hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing throughout this past year, and I worry whose hands will be in charge over this money,” she said.

Petri said the city’s pipe replacement plan does not extend to the pipes in homes that have been contaminated and continue to leech lead into tap water. “What is the plan to cover costs for individual home pipe replacement?” Petri asked.

The Stabenow-Peters-Kildee agreement was signed into law by President Obama in December. Clean water activist Melissa Mays told Rewire it is high time President Trump follow it up with further action.

“I find it interesting that some branches of the media are claiming that Trump did this for us. However, Trump did promise to help us so now it’s his turn to step up and send us additional funding because 100 million dollars is just a tiny start,” she said. “I think it would be very helpful that President Trump stop rolling back environmental regulations and getting rid of the EPA. Otherwise he’s going to usher in thousands of more Flints.”

A Reuters investigation discovered thousands of areas across the country, from Fresno to Cleveland, with levels of childhood lead poisoning higher than in Flint. Reuters found almost 3,000 areas with poisoning rates far higher than that of Flint and has compiled an interactive map of lead hotspots around the nation.

“It’s a widespread problem and we have to get a better idea of where the sources of exposure are,” California Assembly Member Bill Quirk told Reuters.

Reuters found at least 29 California neighborhoods where children’s blood tests showed rates of lead exposure at least as high as in Flint. One Fresno neighborhood recorded rates nearly three times higher than Flint’s, Reuters reported.

From Ferguson to SXSW, It’s a Long Way to Erase Implicit Bias and Racism

Two-and-a-half years after the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old Black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a new video is raising questions about what happened at the convenience store Michael Brown visited on August 9, 2014.

The confrontation, in which Officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots and killed Brown, set off a series of protests in the northern suburb of St. Louis. These protests, in turn, spilled into coordinated actions across the nation.

Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing, first by a St. Louis grand jury in 2014 and then by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2015, fueling racial tensions and continued conversations about implicit bias and racism in police departments.

Implicit bias or unconscious racism happens when an individual carries certain negative attitudes or believes in stereotypes about a population without their conscious knowledge of that belief system. This is exemplified in studies showing white people often, and unknowingly, associate criminality with Black people, according to the Perception Institute, a consortium of social scientists who study bias.

Rachel Godsil, co-founder of Perception Institute, told Rewire in a phone interview that the Brown case and the previously unreleased video really show how implicit bias works.

In Brown’s case, those who looked at his family, life, and experience, and what law enforcement said about the shooting, judged Brown for a minor crime he may not have committed instead of examining the facts of the shooting independently. It exemplifies how Black men are disproportionately seen as a danger or a threat, Godsil said.

The previously unreleased surveillance footage was shown in Stranger Fruit, a documentary by Jason Pollock that premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, earlier this month. The documentary tells the story of the shooting from Brown’s family’s perspective and shows Brown entering a Ferguson convenience store more than 10 hours prior to the fatal noon shooting. Not previously released by the Ferguson Police Department, the surveillance video from the early-morning hours of August 9 appears to show Brown exchanging a bag for a pack of cigarillos and a soda, in what Pollock claims was a marijuana trade. Brown leaves the cigarillos behind, presumably to pick them up later.

A previously released security video documented the next sequence of events when Brown returned and, as the police reported it, robbed the store minutes before the fatal shooting.

Pollock argues in his film that the unreleased footage challenges the former police narrative because it shows Brown returning for goods he had already acquired. However, investigators and attorneys on both sides had viewed the footage after Brown’s death, according to St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. The prosecutor said the video had been deemed irrelevant to the investigation.

Following the SXSW screening, McCulloch released the unedited surveillance footage, parts of which were included in Stranger Fruit, to counter claims that there was a cover-up. “It’s not as though it was hidden away somewhere,” McCulloch said, according to news reports.

The store owners also dispute Pollock’s narrative, while the convenience store’s attorney told CNN that the bag Brown left on the counter was marijuana. Meanwhile, a co-owner of the store told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he wasn’t there that night and cannot confirm or deny whether there had been some kind of transaction between Brown and the clerks working at the time.

The new video led to renewed protests in Ferguson on March 12, CBS News reported.

Michael Brown Sr., who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Wilson, former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, and the City of Ferguson, told the Daily Beast he doesn’t see the new footage as “just stupid,” which is how McCulloch labeled it.

“For the protesters and everyone else that was out there fighting for justice, it was a smack in the face that they felt they needed to do something, but now they know they were right. There was a piece missing,” Brown Sr. said.

“We, as his family, it’s a big pill to swallow … it’s like, damn, Mike is still working from the grave,” he added.

This new development and the protest it sparked are unlikely to change the outcome of the case.

Tara Tee of HandsUp United told Rewire in a phone interview that those people who have already made their minds up about what they saw will not use their critical thinking to see that “things don’t match up”—a sentiment Black people in Ferguson have cried themselves hoarse expressing, with chants like “Hands up, don’t shoot!” She said she has no hope that those people will see things any differently than they did before.

“Who was that video for? White people?” Tee said.

“Why are we having this conversation again?” she asked. “There are wounds that have not closed, and there are a whole band of people who made their minds up about who Mike Brown was a long time ago.”

Ashley Yates, a prominent Black Lives Matter movement organizer originally from St. Louis, echoed Tee’s comments that the new footage is provoking conversation that Ferguson sparked more than two years ago.

“Mike Brown’s body was left in the middle of the street for 4 1/2 hours and, before identifying the cop that killed him, Ferguson made sure to attempt to vilify Mike Brown and convince us all a box of cigarillos were worth his life. Rather than address the brutality dozens of police departments were inflicting on citizens, Ferguson chose to place [Brown] on trial for his own murder,” Yates said in an email to Rewire. “I do think it’s ironic that the very tape they produced to use against Mike Brown is actually causing people to take a deeper look into the lies Ferguson told and helping spark a renewed call for justice​.” ​

At the end of the day, many people in our society see Black lives as less valuable than others’, so it’s easy for those not affected by that injustice to just go on leading their lives, she said.

Scientists are in the early stages of determining how to “de-bias,” according to the Perception Institute. 

Godsil explained that even police departments aware of and trained in avoiding implicit bias have a hard time separating calls from citizens who tend to alert them about Black men spotted in the streets, irrespective of whether or not an actual crime is being committed.

The Center for Policing Equity, a research and action think tank, has been pushing for more data and dialogue between communities and their local police departments to combat racism and bias at the district level, said Chris Burbank, director of law enforcement engagement at the center and a former police chief in Salt Lake City, in a phone interview with Rewire.

“We are absolutely focused on bias in policing,” he said. “We know that men of color, especially Black men ages 18 to 35, are more likely to be engaged by police or have force used against them, and we work with many police agencies across the country to give tests and surveys to determine individual officer bias.”

It is not just individual bias in communities and in police forces, but agency and policy that often inject bias into a department, Burbank said. He mentioned the stop-and-frisk tactics in New York as an example of racial profiling in Black neighborhoods.

Rewire has reported on how the program was deemed racist and an abject failure by civil liberties advocates, as it allowed police to stop and frisk a person without reasonable cause to do so. This then led to racial profiling and infringements on constitutional rights, especially in poverty-stricken and racially segregated neighborhoods.

The controversial practice was significantly reduced after a series of lawsuits that resulted in changes to this flawed policing tool.

The center is currently working with 140 law enforcement agencies to change policy and practice to bring about racial equity in policing.

Burbank said it’s not just about training police officers but about acknowledging the high correlation among poverty, education, and race, as well as an imperfect criminal justice system that gives root to bias. His job is to try to figure out what the role of the police agency is to lessen or change that bias, he said.

“If we don’t acknowledge that and work to change the perception, we are doomed to have history repeat itself with negative outcomes,” like in the Brown case, he said. “Whatever your history, you deserve to live your life and not be threatened or fired upon” during a police encounter.

Change starts with having good data that is open and accessible to determine exactly what is going on. It is “ridiculous,” he said, that we have information on how many cars are stolen in the United States in a given period but no data on how many times police fired their guns. Force is a tool to reduce crime. If data don’t show it is reducing crime, then why are we doing it? Such data are critical to inform, discuss, and make policy to affect change, Burbank said.

DOJ last year announced it would start collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide starting in 2017, something civil rights groups have long pushed for.

The first-of-its-kind plan called for “accurate and comprehensive data on the use of force by law enforcement” that “is essential to an informed and productive discussion about community-police relations.”

The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database counted 963 people shot and killed by police in 2016 and 991 in 2015. So far in 2017, 237 people have been shot and killed by police.

A review before the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year slammed the United States over the high number of Black people killed by police. Al Jazeera reported that the United States accepted 44 recommendations from United Nations member states on eliminating racial discrimination and tackling excessive use of police force, but rejected creating an independent commission to prosecute racially motivated crime.

While many agree police shooting reform is long overdue, the new administration at the White House has said little on the issue. Instead, President Donald Trump issued an executive order enhancing the protection and safety of law enforcement last month. Republican lawmakers have also introduced legislation this year aimed at penalizing and punishing protesters. Trump and his cabinet have openly supported hate groups and systematically opposed efforts aimed at protecting basic human rights.

So while research plays an important part in the advancement of equity and justice, activists emphasized the need for immediate action to show Black lives matter.

“America will look for any excuse to justify the murder of marginalized persons, Black people specifically. What I hope people continue to realize is that racism doesn’t change via talk, it changes via action. It’s great to study bias, but we have enough dead Black bodies as our data. What we need now is the action,” Yates said.

Yates said she is always shocked by how little folks outside of St. Louis know about Brown, Ferguson, and the accomplishments achieved by the movement.

“We’re beginning to see some of that truth make its way out now, via films like Stranger Fruit and the documentary Whose Streets? co-produced by Damon Davis, who is from St. Louis, and as a result, I have seen people’s ideas begin to shift already, questioning and turning away from popular media narratives and tuning in to hear what happened from people who lived it firsthand,” she said in an email.

“It’s beautiful ​to see that hearts and minds are still changing and people are still waking up to the reality of racism and systemic methods of enforcement. It’s wonderful to see people’s compassion for Mike Brown extend beyond court rulings,” Yates said. “I hope what comes next is another swell from newly galvanized people who are willing to fiercely organize in defense of Black people and our lives.”

In light of the new video, protesters in Ferguson have made several demands, including requesting the state’s attorney general reopen the Brown case, Colorlines reported.

“The Ferguson Market for years has received free range to sell drugs in the Black side of Ferguson while the community complained to the police department to no avail,” Tory Russell, local organizer and mission director for the International Black Freedom Alliance, said in a statement at Colorlines, referring to the convenience store from the footage. “Why were the store clerks not brought up on drug charges as any other Black person in St. Louis would have been if they were caught on camera selling drugs?”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, also explained in an email to Rewire that the broader context of discriminatory policing that makes every Black citizen a suspect, including Brown, is what reform should be focusing on.

“We’ve got a long way to go to build bridges of knowledge about the discriminatory and punitive culture of policing in Black communities in the United States. Criminality is a proxy for Blackness and much less so for structural inequality as is true in white communities. Until we close that gap, there will be no such thing as police accountability. Racism and implicit bias will persist unabated,” he said.