Iowa Launches Family Planning Initiative

Lynda Waddington

Former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack was shocked to learn that half of the state's pregnancies are unplanned. In response, she launched the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, a program focused on helping women between the ages of 18 and 30 receive family planning information.

In Iowa, the numbers are staggering. Half of the state's pregnancies are unplanned. When considering only 18- and 19-year-olds who become pregnant, that statistic jumps to 72 percent. What's worse, those numbers have remained stagnant for years. "When I learned these figures, I was shocked," said former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack during a phone interview today. "I have to think that many other Iowans will be shocked as well."

Vilsack's shock prompted action this morning in Des Moines when she launched the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, a program focused on overall awareness and helping women between the ages of 18 and 30 receive family planning information. While the group will not provide contraception and services directly, it does intended to partner with existing groups that do and, hopefully, prompt the public to request funding for such services from the state legislature. In order to fulfill it's mission of reducing unintended pregnancies, the Iowa Initiative will partner with the University of Northern Iowa to employ "a number of exciting, cutting-edge social marketing techniques," exact details to be released in upcoming weeks.

"This is a real opportunity," an excited Vilsack said of her position as executive director. "I feel like I got the perfect job and now I can focus on one issue I really care about."

The position came to Vilsack by way of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which has provided $1.5 million to fund the program. The foundation, named for the late wife of Nebraska investor Warren Buffett, is known for providing scholarships to Nebraska youth and outstanding teacher awards. The late Buffett, who died unexpectedly in July 2004, was a civil rights and contraceptive advocate.

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Vilsack, who has spent her adult life working for and on behalf of the state's adolescents, said the program is extension of what she's already accomplished.

"Everything I've done in my life is about empowering young people to make wise decisions and giving them the tools to do that," Vilsack said in a telephone interview today. "Everything I've done has been about building things and being creative — building something from the beginning and working with adolescents, particularly adolescent women to build physically and emotionally healthy women. I think that's at the heart of a strong society."

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only half of Iowa counties have at least one family planning clinic. The institute, a national, non-profit group that tracks reproductive health services, determined there are 327,580 women in Iowa who are in need of contraceptive services and supplies. Iowa is ranked overall in 36th place in terms of how well the state is meeting existing needs for subsidized contraceptive services and supplies, whether laws and policies are likely to facilitate access to contraceptives and information, and the extent to which the state devotes its own revenues to support delivery of publicly supporter contraceptives and services. Iowa ranks 48th in the nation for making family planning services available.

"As a woman, teacher and mother, I believe we have a responsibility to give every woman in the state the knowledge and means to prevent pregnancy," Vilsack said.

Reducing unintended pregnancy, she said, may also reduce the number of abortions in the state. Currently, between 10 and 12 percent of all pregnancies in Iowa end in abortion.

Vilsack praised the state legislature for passing a bill last year that called for all sex education in Iowa schools to be medically- and scientifically-based.

"There is federally money that comes [into Iowa] for abstinence education, but we know that abstinence education doesn't work," she said. "Fourteen states so far have refused that federal money. That's pretty amazing because states, when they can get federal money, like to take it. But since abstinence programs don't work, there's now a movement among states to just decline the money — although Iowa has not."

Iowa receives money through two abstinence streams — Title V, Section 510 and the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (Family Youth Services Bureau). The Title V monies — just over $300,000 per year — are given to the State Department of Health for abstinence advocacy and redistribution to other groups. The other stream is a new addition to the state and came in the form of a $600,000 non-matching grant to Bethany Christian Services of Northwest Iowa.

Vilsack is currently in the process of staffing the organization's offices, located at 300 E. Locust St. in Des Moines' East Village. She is also joined by a board of 10 that includes health care professionals, businesswomen, people of faith and former legislators. In the coming months, Vilsack intends to speak to various civic and social groups about the organization and its mission.

"[Unintended pregnancy] touches an emotional chord," she said. "I think in every room that I speak in, those listening are going to think of someone they know who's affected by this issue. I think it is a conversation we need to have, and one that will maybe make some people uncomfortable. But, we need to talk about it because it is impacting individuals, it is impacting communities and it is also impacting taxpayers. For young teenagers, it is costing taxpayers over $80 million dollars a year. We don't know what the costs are for 18- to 30-year-olds."

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

News Politics

Ohio Legislator: ‘Aggressive Attacks’ May Block Voters From the Polls

Ally Boguhn

Efforts to remove voters from state rolls and curb access to the polls could have an outsized impact in Ohio, which has seen a surge of anti-choice legislation under the state’s Republican leadership.

Ohio Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) said she is worried about the impact of what she called “aggressive attacks” on voting rights in her state.

Ohio voters who have not engaged in voter activity in a fixed period of time, generally two years, are considered by the state to have moved, which then begins the process of removing them from their rolls through something called the “Supplemental Process.” If a voter fails to respond to a postcard mailed to them to confirm their address, they become “inactive voters.” If an inactive voter does not engage in voter activity for four years, they’re automatically unregistered to vote and must re-register to cast a ballot. 

Though other states routinely clean voting rolls, most don’t use failure to vote as a reason to remove someone.

“We have two million voters purged from the rolls in the last five years, many in the last four years since the last presidential election,” Clyde said during an interview with Rewire

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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) dismissed concerns of the voter purges’ impact during an interview with Reuters. “If this is really important thing to you in your life, voting, you probably would have done so within a six-year period,” he said.

Ohio’s removal of voters through this process “is particularly problematic in the lead-up to the November 2016 federal election because voters who voted in the high-turnout 2008 federal election (but who did not vote in any subsequent elections) were removed from voter rolls in 2015,” according to an amicus curiae brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights division in support of those who filed suit against Ohio’s law. 

The DOJ has urged the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court’s ruling in favor of the state, writing that Ohio’s voter purge violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Since 2012, at least 144,000 voters have been removed from Ohio’s voter rolls in its three biggest counties, Reuters reported. The secretary of state’s office said 2 million registered voters had been taken off the rolls in the past five years, though many had been removed because they were deceased.

Husted contends that he is just enforcing the law. “Ohio manages its voter rolls in direct compliance of both federal and state laws, and is consistent with an agreement in this same federal court just four years ago,” Husted said in an April statement after the ACLU of Ohio and Demos, a voting rights organization, filed a lawsuit in the matter.

In predominantly Black neighborhoods near downtown Cincinnati, “more than 10 percent of registered voters have been removed due to inactivity since 2012,” reported Reuters. The outlet found that several places where more voters had cast ballots for President Obama in 2012 were the same locations experiencing higher percentages of purged voters.

“Some of the data is showing that African Americans voters and Democratic voters were much more likely affected,” Clyde said when discussing the state’s purge of registered voters. 

Clyde has requested data on those purged from the rolls, but has been turned down twice. “They’ve said no in two different ways and are referring me to the boards of elections, but there are 88 boards of election,” she told RewireWith limited staff resources to devote to data collection, Clyde is still searching for a way to get answers.

In the meantime, many otherwise eligible voters may have their votes thrown away and never know it.

“[P]eople that had been purged often don’t know that they’ve been purged, so they may show up to vote and find their name isn’t on the roll,” Clyde said. “Then, typically that voter is given a provisional ballot and … told that the board of elections will figure out the problem with their voter registration. And then they don’t really receive notice that that provisional ballot doesn’t eventually count.” 

Though the state’s voter purges could continue to disenfranchise voters across the state, it is hardly the only effort that may impact voting rights there.

“There have been a number of efforts undertaken by the GOP in Ohio to make voting more difficult,” Clyde said. “That includes fighting to shorten the number of early voting days available, that includes fighting to throw out people’s votes that have been cast—whether it be a provisional ballot or absentee ballot—and that includes purging more voters than any other state.” 

This could make a big difference for voters in the state, which has seen a surge of anti-choice legislation under the state’s Republican leadership—including failed Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich.

“So aside from the terrible effect that has on the fundamental right to vote in Ohio, progressives who maybe are infrequent voters or are seeing what’s happening around [reproductive rights and health] issues and want to express that through their vote may experience problems in Ohio because of these aggressive attacks on voting rights,” Clyde said. 

“From our presidential candidates on down to our candidates for the state legislature, there is a lot at stake when it comes to reproductive health care and reproductive rights in this election,” Clyde added. “So I think that, if that is an issue that is important to any Ohioan, they need to have their voice heard in this election.” 


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