Where Are The Women in Obama’s Faith-Based Advisory Council?

Kate Ott

"Addressing teen pregnancy" does not automatically translate into effective strategies to reduce teen pregnancy. Young women and men need comprehensive sexuality education and contraception.

The Obama Administration’s Office
of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships announced an Advisory Council
and four key priorities this week.  In addition to addressing poverty
and promoting interfaith dialogue, the priorities consider "how we
support women and children, address teenage pregnancy, and reduce the
need for abortion," and call for "encouraging responsible fatherhood."   

Notice how women are paired with children
and pregnancy/abortion concerns.  Men apparently only need help with
fatherhood.  This gendered pairing strikes me as paternalistic and misguided.  

For one thing, the issue of abortion
isn’t just about teens and unwed mothers.  Married women have abortions,
too.  Many women who make a moral decision to have an abortion do so
with a male partner’s support — does that fit the Advisory Council’s
definition of responsible fatherhood?  As the Religious Institute says in our Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision, 

    We affirm women as moral agents
    who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make the decision
    as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances.
    That decision is best made when it includes a well-informed conscience,
    serious reflection, insights from her faith and values, and consultation
    with a caring partner, family members, and spiritual counselor. Men
    have a moral obligation to acknowledge and support women’s decision-making.

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Also, reducing the need for abortion requires
more than addressing teen pregnancy.  I pray the members
of the Council will not set up roadblocks to abortion access as part
of a "reduction" strategy.  I pray, rather, that they agree
that one way to ensure that any woman, teenage or older, will not face
the moral decision to have an abortion is to reduce unintentional pregnancies. 
I’m not the first to make this observation and won’t be the

"Addressing teen pregnancy"
does not automatically translate into effective strategies to reduce
teen pregnancy.  Young women and men need comprehensive sexuality education
and access to contraception.  So do adults, both single and married.

As a faith-based initiative, the new
office must also recognize that "faith matters" when it comes to
delaying mature sexual behaviors, which can affect teen pregnancy rates. 
I am not talking about abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  We know they don’t work
Active, consistent involvement in a faith community does. 

As a 2003 study by the Christian Community found "A
strong connection to adults in the congregation; the provision of information
on how to make sexual decisions; and the portrayal of sex in a healthy
and positive way are strong contributing factors to these teens who
were the least likely in the study to have had intercourse…Clearly
caring adults in the congregation have a significant role to play." 
Teens need attentive leaders, teachers and parents to help them make
responsible moral decisions. They need positive examples of good sexual
decision-making (something a faith community can offer), and accurate
information presented in the context of their faith values.

So far, only four women have been named
to the President’s Advisory Council.  Four out of 15 spots doesn’t cut it so long as women make up
half the population and are central to the Council’s stated priorities. 
Ten more members are still to be appointed; perhaps the Obama administration
will appoint female role models for the young women they are trying
to support. 

How about a woman who is a member of
the clergy, or a feminist who has worked her whole life in faith communities
to support women and girls?  Now that would be a role model for young
women of faith! 

When these women are invited to participate
on the Council, I hope they will suggest that President Obama edit the
four priorities to read: "encourage responsible sexual decision-making"
(by men and women) and "reduce teen pregnancy through comprehensive
sexuality education."  These revisions will help us move beyond gendered
priorities and put the focus on healthy sexuality. Those seem to fit
better – scientifically, practically, and faithfully – not only
with reducing the need for abortion, but with encouraging strong parenting
and challenging poverty as well.  

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

News Law and Policy

Federal Judge Guts Florida GOP’s Omnibus Anti-Choice Law

Teddy Wilson

"For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” said Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away."

A federal judge on Thursday permanently blocked two provisions of a Florida omnibus anti-choice law that banned Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds and required annual inspections of all clinics that provide abortion services, reported the Associated Press.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle issued an order in June to delay implementation of the law.

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that a government cannot prohibit indirectly—by withholding otherwise-available public funds—conduct that the government could not constitutionally prohibit directly,” Hinkle wrote in the 25-page ruling.  

Thursday’s decision came after Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s administration decided not to pursue further legal action to defend the law, and filed a joint motion to end the litigation.

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Hinkle issued a three page decision making the injunction permanent.

HB 1411, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton (R-Lakeland), was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in March.

The judge’s ruling nixed provisions in the law that banned state funding of abortion care and required yearly clinic inspections. Other provisions of the law that remain in effect include additional reporting requirements for abortion providers, redefining “third trimester,” and revising the care of fetal remains.

The GOP-backed anti-choice law has already had a damaging effect in Palm Beach County, where Planned Parenthood was forced to end a program that focused on teen dropout prevention.

Barbara Zdravecky, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, said in a statement that the ruling was a “victory for thousands of Floridians” who rely on the organization for reproductive health care.

“For many people, Planned Parenthood is the only place they can turn to,” Zdravecky said. “We may be the only place they can go in their community, or the only place that offers the screening or birth control method they need. No one should have their basic health care taken away.”

A spokesperson for Scott told Reuters that the administration is “reviewing” the decision.


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