Will the Senate vote tonight on a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Is the military abortion ban next? It seems we're on the verge of a potentially historic breakthrough when it comes to government sanctioned discrimination.
Update 12/8/10, 6:35pm EST: It looks ike the Senate won’t vote on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell tonight. As per Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) request for an extended period of debate on the Defense Authorization Bill (the bill which is the vehicle for DADT), and to sideline a filibuster, Reid is delaying a vote.
It looks like the Senate could take a procedural vote tonight, led by Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell included in the Defense Authorization Bill – a bill that also includes a repeal of the abortion ban for women who serve in the United States military. Some gay rights activists, however, are saying Senator Reid should hold the vote, since Republicans have threatened a filibuster on the Defense Bill vote if it’s not held off until voting on “tax cuts and government spending legislation.”
At this point, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – the policy which prevents gay and lesbian service members from openly revealing their sexuality – has been deemed a dinosaur. A federal judge has ruled it unconstitutional, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has come out in support of the repeal, the House has already voted to end it, and the Pentagon released a report of a year-long study in which the majority of military members and their spouses say they can actually handle a repeal, would not leave their jobs and that the unit cohesion amongst the troops would not be negatively affected.
As for the military abortion ban, the federal government is currently denying our female service members access to reproductive health care or forcing soldiers or the family members of soldiers to turn to unsafe and unhealthy scenarios in order to access some type of care. When a woman is stationed overseas, in a country where abortion access is severely limited or illegal entirely, not only does it potentially place a woman in danger by forcing her to get substandard care, but she also may be in a position where she needs to find funds to pay for the abortion, to fly home or travel a great distance to the closest facility which will perform an abortion. According to the ACLU, the ban discriminates against women who have chosen to serve their country plain and simple. Notes the ACLU:
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A recent article, “Military Abortion Ban: Female Soldiers Not Protected by Constitution They Defend,” recounts the story of a Marine who was stationed in Fallujah when she realized she was pregnant as a result of rape. Faced with being ostracized by her male colleagues if she reported the rape, “Amy” did not do so. Without any options, this Marine attempted to self-abort using the cleaning rod of her rifle.
The ACLU also notes that given the high incidences of rape and sexual assault, placing military women in the position of facing further barriers to care is cruel.
Both of these policies are simply government sanctioned discrimination – against LGBT Americans and women. The ACLU and others are encouraging people to call and email your Senator(s).
When discussing immigrants’ rights, presidential candidates tend to focus solely on how their administration would create a pathway to citizenship and funnel more resources to the border. But detention centers are perhaps the most troubling and overlooked aspect of the United States’ broken immigration system, and they are a topic many major media outlets are failing to engage candidates on.
And even when detention centers are brought up, candidates don’t always clearly articulate a stance. For example, even when a candidate is pushing for an end to privately run detention centers, they aren’t necessarily calling for an end to the detention of undocumented folks. This is certainly true of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom is vowing to disrupt the detention system, just who oversees it.
But whether they are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or a for-profit entity, detention centers are alarming for a number of reasons, as are the connections some politicians have to them.
Before examining the candidates’ stances on—and ties to—detention, it’s important to understand which institutions are behind the current explosion of facilities here in the United States.
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The number of immigrants in detention centers has steadily increased since the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Under these policies, mandatory detention of non-citizens became the norm, despite the fact that, as noted by the American Civil Liberties Union, prolonged detention is a violation of the right to due process.
Simply put, detention—and family detention in particular—is inhumane. Women and children fleeing violence in their countries of origin, for example, present themselves at the border as asylum seekers, as is required by law, yet they’re placed in what are essentially prisons with their young children. They also remain in detention indefinitely, often in unsafe conditions. According to the American Immigration Council, because “there are no statutory limits to the amount of time a non-citizen may be held in immigration detention,” the length of detention stays for asylum seekers varies depending on, among other factors, the status of their application. For asylum applicants, the average length of detention is 65 days, but many asylum applicants are kept in immigration detention for several months, sometimes even years.
U.S. government policies ensure that there are always plenty of people in detention. As the Nation reported in August 2014, the United States keeps at least 34,000 undocumented immigrants in detention each day for the purpose of meeting a quota, also known as the “detention-bed mandate.” The quota, which the Nation reported took effect in 2007, appears in the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Advocates contend the quota is linked to industry lobbying. Since its implementation, “the quota has become a driver of an increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement strategy,” according to the Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership.
The expansion of the immigration detention system has proven to be profitable for private prison corporations and local governments. Of the roughly 350 facilities used to detain immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), only about eight are owned and run by ICE. According to the National Immigration Forum, ICE contracts with more than 240 state and county jails and private correctional corporations to house immigrant detainees.
The average U.S. citizen isn’t aware that detention centers may exist in their community, even though it’s costing taxpayers billions. The system operates without much visibility, yet in 2014 DHS requested some $2 billion in detention funding for the year; the agency maintains the detention system costs over $5 million a day.
“Family detention centers” are specifically used to detain mothers and their young children, often asylum seekers fleeing gender-based violence. Reports have found that the conditions in detention centers are entirely inappropriate for mothers and children, and that detention often traumatizes families, undermines the basic family structure, and has a devastating psychosocial impact. Privately run centers, in particular, have seen numerous allegations of human rights violations over the years, including accusations of child abuse, physical and sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, and use of solitary confinement.
Immigrants in all detention centers are regularly denied basic due process rights, with no government-appointed attorneys for those in deportation proceedings.
How Private Companies Profit
The for-profit businesses behind the facilities have raked in billions from the detention of undocumented communities and, in turn, have made campaign contributions to support some unlikely bedfellows.
The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), make anywhere from $122 to $159 per detainee per day. At the former family detention center in Texas, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, CCA has been able to receive up to $200 a day per detainee, according to Detention Watch Network.
Recently, the research firm In the Public Interest illustrated how private companies profit from all corners of America’s detention system, from the detention facility to the bail bonds to GPS ankle monitoring to the deportation itself.
The often unlawful imprisonment of undocumented immigrants has created a new market that primarily benefits for-profit prison companies.
It should come as no surprise why GEO and CCA have a combined annual revenue of $3.3 billion. These companies also regularly lobby Congress for more detention centers, according to the Washington Post. GEO and CCA have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989.
This broken system, it seems, has also benefited some presidential candidates who have accepted campaign donations tied to privately owned detention centers. There isn’t a single presidential hopeful on either side who has shown a clear understanding of the consequences of detention centers, and some aren’t necessarily advocating for their complete closure.
Last month, during the Fusion Television Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to “end private detention centers,” something she outlined in further detail during December’s National Immigrant Integration Conference, saying, “There are people in immigration detention right now who are on a hunger strike. We need to be focused on detention conditions. And as president, I’ll close private immigration detention centers. This is a critical government responsibility, and we should not be outsourcing it to anyone else.”
These declarations can serve Clinton well. A recent Gallup poll found that 20 percent of nearly 2,000 registered voters said they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on immigration, while another 60 percent said they consider the candidates’ stance on immigration one of many important issues they will take into consideration on Election Day. But those looking to vote for a candidate who wants to abolish the detention system need to take a closer look at what Clinton is really saying.
There is a stark difference between vowing to close detention centers entirely because they are unethical and profit off of vulnerable communities, and vowing to close private immigration detention centers.
On Clinton’s site, her stance is clearly articulated: “She [Clinton] believes we should move away from contracting out this critical government function to private corporations and private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”
In May, Clinton earned the applause of immigration advocates when at a roundtable in Nevada, she said she was “very worried about detention and detention facilities for people who are vulnerable and for children,” saying the focus should be on detaining immigrants who have “a record of violent, illegal behavior.”
These kinds of statements paint a tidy picture of the very complex reality of immigrants’ lives. Sometimes those who are vulnerable have criminal records and often, those people are parents.
Clintonadded, according to the U.S. News and World Report:
“I don’t think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities because I think they’re at risk. I think that their physical and mental health are at risk,” [she] said, adding that the government should be giving such migrants support and representation while changing the current processes “within the kind of discretion … the president has exercised with his executive orders.”
Put plainly, Clinton’s plan is to stop the privatization of detention centers and instead, make them a function solely of the government. In October, Clinton’s campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa released a statement on Clinton’s behalf further outlining her plan, saying Clinton “believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government, and when we’re dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don’t need private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”
It’s also important to note that the presidential hopeful’s campaign and PAC has had ties to privately owned detention centers. As the Intercept reported in July, two of the Clinton campaign’s fundraisers are connected to two major prison companies, and Vice reported in October that lobbying firms working for GEO and CCA gave $133,246 to the Ready for Hillary PAC. Clinton has since said she will stop accepting campaign contributions from those corporations and the lobbyists who work for them.
Unlike Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has not accepted contributions from big-name supporters with ties to private detention centers, but like her, it is his goal to end private centers. Within three years, the senator from Vermont wants to put an end to all of the government’s private prison and detention center contracts with the hope of curbing the country’s soaring mass incarceration rate.
In September, Sanders announced that he was co-sponsoring the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, which aims to reduce the inmate population in federal, state, and local facilities that has skyrocketed because of “draconian criminal laws, politically powerful corporations profiting from incarceration, immigration enforcement policies, and strict policies regarding parole and release of prisoners.”
Three of the legislation’s seven proposed reforms are detention center-related. Sanders and co-sponsor, Arizona congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (D), aim to require ICE to improve the monitoring of detention facilities to “ensure humane treatment of detainees,” and end family detention and the bed quota.
Sanders is also pushing to see immigrants in detention released and monitored through ankle bracelets or required check-ins with immigration agents. His plan is being called ambitious, but like Clinton, Sanders has done little to quell advocates’ fear that private detention centers will simply be replaced by government-run detention centers.
While Donald Trump garners most of the headlines about immigration on the GOP side because of his egregious, racist comments, it’s actually Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who has the most nefarious ties to the immigrant detention system. Rubio’s PACs and campaign have taken a total of $133,450 from private prison companies or groups that lobby on their behalf, but Rubio’s relationship with these companies goes back further than the campaign trail.
As the Washington Post reported, Rubio has had close ties to GEO for years, since his time as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.The Republican Party of Florida PAC has received over $2 million from GEO and CCA since 1989 and in 2010, GEO and its affiliates provided $33,500 to political action committees benefiting Florida Republicans, including the Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate PAC. As of April 2015, GEO’s co-founder and chief executive, George Zoley, had personally donated thousands of dollars to Rubio.
The Center for Media and Democracy detailed how Rubio’s connections to GEO during his time in the Florida house gave the private prison company a seat at the table. Rubio hired Donna Arduin as an economic consultant; Arduin is a former trustee for GEO’s Correctional Properties Trust. According to reports, Arduin worked with Rubio’s then-budget chief, Ray Sansom, to push a $110 million deal for a new GEO prison in the House Appropriations Bill. In the same report, the Center for Media and Democracy detailed how legislation that benefited GEO followed Arduin’s presence in government from California to Florida.
When Rubio won the Senate seat in 2011, he appointed Cesar Conda as his chief of staff. Conda was co-founder of what would become GEO’s main lobbying firm, Navigators Global. While working with Rubio, Conda still received payments of $150,000 from Navigators Global as part of a stock buyout arrangement. The Washington Post reports that in April 2014, Conda went on to lead Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC as a senior adviser, until rejoining Navigators Global in November of that year. During Conda’s time with Rubio, GEO became a top-ten contributor to Reclaim America, giving $16,000 in 2014. Navigators Global also obtained $610,000 from GEO between 2011 and 2014, all while it lobbied for immigration reform on GEO’s behalf.
Rubio does not address detention once in his immigration plan.
According to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s immigration plan, the number of people in detention will increase dramatically under his administration, as will the resources used to imprison them.
The Texas senator asserts there haven’t been nearly as many deportations under President Obama as possible—and in his estimation, as necessary. According to Cruz’s website, “During the first five years of the Obama Administration, President Obama removed or returned only 3.8 million ‘illegal’ entrants. That is a fraction of the removals and returns during the previous five years, and a fraction of what we could accomplish if we had a President who actually forced DHS to do its job and removed politics from an agency charged with law enforcement. As President, I would do just that.”
Cruz wants to funnel more resources to DHS to expand the number of deportees, asserting that everyone “apprehended trying to enter the United States without permission will be detained until they are removed from the United States.”
Despite reports finding that family detention is harmful and inhumane, Cruz wants to double down on all detention, including keeping asylum seekers detained as their cases are pending. Specifically, as it relates to asylum seekers, Cruz wants to “utilize the executive branch’s discretionary authority to ensure detention is enforced in all asylum cases. Detention of those making asylum claims will ensure rapid processing of legitimate claims and rapid deportation of false claims, and will go a long way toward discouraging those with bogus claims from attempting to come here.”
Cruz is advocating that detention centers be government-run and asserting that ICE-run detention centers are a priority. The senator plans to “[s]upport ICE agents and their enforcement efforts by significantly increasing permanent detention capacity for illegal immigrants in the interior of the United States, and give ICE leadership the flexibility to procure additional, temporary detention space from the General Services Administration and state and local law enforcement on an as-needed basis. The Obama Administration has limited detention space for illegal immigrants who are taken into custody to limit the ability of ICE agents to detain illegal immigrants and begin the process of deportation. I will end that practice.”
Billionaire and former reality TV show host Donald Trump has said a lot about immigration, but not much about detention centers. Given his plan to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States—and their U.S. citizen children—using a “deportation force,” it’s safe to say the conditions in detention centers aren’t a concern to him.
Keep in mind, Trump is literally modeling his approach to deportation after President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1954 program “Operation Wetback,” a military-style, government operation that resulted in the mass deportation of one million people. According to CNN, the policy “plucked Mexican laborers from fields and ranches in targeted raids, bused them to detention centers along the border, and ultimately sent many of them deep into the interior of Mexico, some by airlift, others on cargo boats that typically hauled bananas.”
In her book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, author Mae Ngai included a congressional report that compared the conditions on the boats to those of 18th-century slave ships. The program ended after a number of deaths due to sunstroke and drownings, but the Eisenhower administration still characterized it as a “success.”
In a recent interview, when a reporter pointed out to Trump that “Operation Wetback” is seen by many as a “shameful chapter in American history,” Trump responded, “Well, some people do, and some people think it was a very effective chapter. When they brought them back [to Mexico], they removed some, everybody else left. And it was very successful, everyone said. So I mean, that’s the way it is. Look, we either have a country, or we don’t. If we don’t have strong borders, we have a problem.”
The American Civil Liberties Union reports that the American immigration detention system locks up hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year, exposing them to brutal and inhumane conditions—and it’s unnecessary. Unless policies change and politicians push for more than simply having government-run detention centers, the human rights abuses experienced by undocumented immigrants in detention will only continue.
The next year promises to be an eventful one on the legal front—though we feel like we say that every December. After all, 2015 brought challenges to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act; a case on whether not hiring an employee because she wears a hijab is employment discrimination; the historic and successful challenge to same-sex marriage bans; the failed challenge to federal subsidies in the Affordable Care Act; and a failed attempt to gut the Fair Housing Act. Meanwhile, 2014 was the year the Roberts Court gave the green light to governments embracing prayer at civic functions; it also struck most abortion clinic buffer zones as unconstitutional in McCullen v. Coakley. And who could forget Hobby Lobby v. Burwell,the case in which the Roberts Court created a constitutional corporate right to object to contraception coverage?
Even so, 2016 is stillshaping up to be an important year for reproductive rights and justice. Some cases on the list to watch—like yet another challenge to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act—we anticipated. Other cases, like the trial in Colorado of Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who is accused of launching a siege at a Planned Parenthood health-care center in Colorado Springs that killed three, injured nine, and terrorized many others, we wish were not here at all. But given the violent rhetoric targeting abortion doctors, providers, and patients that increased over the course of 2015, we can’t say we were surprised to put it there.
The Roberts Court
Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole
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Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole is the Roberts Court’s first substantive dive back into abortion-rights law since Gonzales v. Carhart, which banned so-called partial-birth abortions in 2006. But unlike Gonzales, which focused on the constitutionality of a procedure-specific abortion ban, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole takes on the porous “undue burden” standard of 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision by tackling just how rigorously courts should apply that standard when reviewing abortion restrictions that purport to advance patient health and safety. That makes Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole the Court case with the most potential to affect abortion rights in nearly 25 years.
Little Sisters and the Rest of the Nonprofit Contraception Cases
Another Roberts Court term brings another challenge to some portion of the Affordable Care Act. This time, the Court returns to the ACA’s birth control benefit and the question of whether the government’s process for allowing religiously affiliated nonprofits to opt out from providing health insurance plans that offer contraception is too burdensome under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Court consolidated seven cases filed by hospitals, nursing homes, and other kinds of businesses that are religiously run and affiliated; all object to filling out the opt-out form. The cases represent not just a test to the administration’s opt-out provision for the birth control benefit, but the strength of the majority decision in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, which relied on the accommodation process now before the Court to rule that for-profit businesses should have a similar opt-out option available. A ruling that would allow these nonprofits to be exempted from the coverage would have enormous implications, as 10 percent of larger nonprofits have asked the Obama administration for an accommodation to the rule already.
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association
The Roberts Court has not been kind to workers’ rights generally, making it harder for employees harassed by supervisors to sue and drastically reducing employees’ abilities to raise class-action lawsuits. This term is no exception with Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that takes on the way public employee unions are funded. Currently, if a union represents a group of workers, that company’s entire workforce, or at least a defined portion of it, pays a fee designed to compensate the union for its bargaining activities. The argument supporting these fees is that the union’s actions benefit the entire workforce—not just union members—and the fee is nominal in the face of the influence of management and corporate owners. But anti-union interests argue those fees violate the First Amendment. Should the Roberts Court agree, the result would severely limit unions’ abilities to raise money for their operations and to effectively bargain on behalf of their members. Women and people of color, who make up the majority of public employee union membership, would feel the most severe effects in this scenario.
Evenwel v. Abbott
Evenwel is the latest in a series of “representation” cases dreamed up by Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation—which was behind Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Blum is also responsible for Fisher v. University of Texas, the case challenging the admissions policy at the University of Texas on the grounds that it discriminates against white students. Evenwel challenges “one person, one vote”; though it concerns the drawing of state senate districts in Texas, the case has potential national implications. Under the 14th Amendment, states are allocated seats in the House of Representatives by “counting the whole number of persons in each state.” States follow this process when determining their own statewide districts, carving up districts based on U.S. Census Bureau population data and irrespective of the total number of registered voters in each. The plaintiffs in Evenwel argue that by counting children, documented and undocumented immigrants, many prisoners, and other non-voters, Texas denies “eligible voters their fundamental right to an equal vote.” If they win, legislative districts would become older, whiter, more rural, and more conservative. Political power would shift from urban areas to rural areas. Our elected officials would be even older and whiter than they already are. In other words, the gains made by the civil rights era in diversifying our elected bodies would be rolled back, the same way Shelby County v. Holder rolled back the voting participation gains made by the the Voting Rights Act.
Fisher v. University of Texas
Race-based affirmative actions are again before the Roberts Court in Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher applied to UT for admission into the undergraduate class of 2012. When UT rejected her application, she sued the university, alleging that it discriminated against her because she is white, even though of the 47 equally or “less” qualified students who were admitted over Fisher, 42 were white—only five were Black or Latino. Her case has made it up to the Roberts Court once before. The justices punted on the ultimate question of whether or not the University of Texas’ plan violated the Constitution, instead sending the case back to the conservative Fifth Circuit. After the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the University’s admission plan, again, conservatives ran the case back up to the Roberts Court.
During oral arguments, it became apparent that the conservative wing of the court is prepared to decimate affirmative action. Justice Scalia wondered whether admitting Black students into schools that might be too hard for them was doing them a disservice. Justice Roberts appeared frustrated that affirmative action still exists at all, and wondered what unique perspective a student of color brings to a physics class and whether diversity serves any purpose in that context. Given the Roberts Court’s palpable hostility toward any acknowledgement that race continues to be a decisive factor in the oppression of people of color in the United States, proponents of affirmative action are right to be concerned about the fate of race-conscious admissions policies at colleges and universities.
Courts of Appeals
Purvi Patel Conviction for Feticide
Purvi Patel is an Indian-American woman who in July 2013 entered an emergency room in South Bend, Indiana, while suffering heavy vaginal bleeding. She initially denied to doctors that she had been pregnant, but eventually acknowledged she had miscarried. Patel told hospital staff the fetus was stillborn and that she had placed it in a bag in a dumpster. Doctors then alerted the police, who questioned her and searched her cell phone—all while she was in the hospital and under the influence of pain medication. During the search of her cell phone, police saw a series of text messages, which prosecutors later claimed made the case Patel had attempted an illegal abortion by ordering abortion-inducting medications and taking them. Police charged Patel with felony feticide and neglect of a dependent. The feticide charge presumed the fetus was stillborn, while the neglect of a dependent charge presumed a live birth. Despite this apparent conflict, a jury convicted Patel on both counts. Patel, who has no criminal record, was ordered to serve 20 years in prison. Attorneys have appealed her case, arguing there was no evidence she took any abortion-inducing medication. Attorneys for the State of Indiana have doubled down on Patel’s prosecution and defended their case, arguing as if it is good public health policy to radically restrict contraception and abortion access in the state and then criminally prosecute women whose pregnancies end in anything other than a successful live birth.
Second-Trimester Abortions in Kansas
In 2015, Kansas became the first state to pass a ban on the most commonly used method of ending pregnancy in the second trimester, setting the stage for the next big legal showdown over specific abortion procedures. SB 95 bans dilation and evacuation (D and E) abortions—what anti-choicers like to call “dismemberment abortions”—and is based on legislation drafted by the radically anti-choice National Right to Life Committee. Oklahoma passed a similar version just one day after Kansas did, and copycat legislation has been introduced in both Missouri and South Carolina. Shortly before it was set to take effect in Kansas, reproductive rights advocates sued to block it. But instead of challenging the measure in federal court like most abortion-related challenges, advocates sued in state court, arguing the law violates Sections 1 and 2 of the Kansas Bill of Rights, which they say provide due process guaranteeing the government cannot infringe on personal liberties.
Because due process rights have been used at the federal level to protect the right to an abortion, pro-choice advocates argue the same should be the case under the Kansas Constitution. In December, the entire panel of judges on the Kansas Court of Appeals heard arguments as to whether a temporary order currently blocking the ban should be affirmed as the legal challenge proceeds. Regardless of how the court ultimately rules on the temporary order, the Kansas case is an important one to watch because it is in state court. Almost all of our abortion rights law comes from federal court challenges, but those have become increasingly hostile thanks to decades of conservative judicial appointments. State courts could, therefore, prove to be those rights’ final protectors.
Catholic Hospitals’ Refusal of Services
In 2010, a then-18 weeks pregnant Tamesha Means showed up at Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan, in the middle of having a miscarriage. Mercy Health, a Catholic-sponsored facility, sent Means home twice, saying there was nothing it could do for her. It wasn’t until Means, a mother of three, returned to Mercy Health a third time—this time suffering from a significant infection as her miscarriage persisted untreated—that the hospital decided to treat her by offering her some aspirin for her fever. As Mercy Hospital was preparing to discharge Means once more, she started to deliver. The hospital decided at that point to admit Means and to treat her condition. Means eventually delivered a baby, who died within hours of birth.
Means sued Mercy Health, arguing that its adherence to the “Ethical and Religious Directives“—which, among other regulations, prohibit a pre-viability pregnancy termination—resulted in medical malpractice in her case. The lower court dismissed Means’ claims, ruling it did not have the power to interpret Catholic doctrine directly. Means appealed, and her case is currently before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, hospitals in California and Michigan face allegations similarto those in the Means case: that adherence to the directives has resulted in malpractice when treating reproductive health-care conditions. So far, courts have not taken this question of whether or not Catholic doctrine can override the medical community’s standard of care. But it is a fight they won’t be able to stay out of long, since one in nine hospital beds in this country are at a Catholic or Catholic-sponsored facility, and they appear to be turning away women in need at a pretty rapid pace.
The Legal Battle Over the Planned Parenthood Tapes
Perhaps the biggest controversy to emerge from 2015 is the video smear campaign waged against Planned Parenthood by David Daleiden and his anti-choice front group, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). Daleiden’s months-long sting operation, which saw him infiltrate under false pretenses private meetings held by the National Abortion Federation (NAF), resulted in the release of video footage purporting to show that Planned Parenthood is in the grisly business of harvesting fetal “body parts” and profiting from their sale. This, despite the fact that there’s nothing illegal about fetal tissue donation programs and Planned Parenthood has been repeatedly cleared of wrongdoing by several state and federal investigations. Within weeks of the release of the first video, the NAF sued Daleiden and CMP in federal court. The court granted NAF’s request for an order blocking the further release of any video footage recorded at NAF’s private events. It also ordered CMP and Daleiden to turn over to NAF the names of Daleiden’s associates, accomplices, and funders. The information they gave is under protective order, but should the court decide to make that list public, we’ll find out which Republican operatives and politicians, if any, Daleiden worked with to perpetrate this deception.
Anti-Abortion Terrorism in Colorado Springs
Robert Lewis Dear Jr. is accused of opening fire at a Planned Parenthood reproductive health-care facility in late November, killing three people and injuring nine, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has been charged in state court with 179 felony counts, including first-degree murder. If convicted, Dear could face the death penalty. Federal prosecutors are also investigating Dear for possible violations of federal law, including the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, the federal statute that makes it a felony to target for harassment abortion clinics, doctors, patients, and staff. Dear’s charges came after a summer of escalating violent anti-choice rhetoric following the CMP’s release of its deceptively edited footage. Conservatives insist their claims about “Planned Parenthood selling baby parts” had nothing to do with the Colorado Springs shooting, despite Dear reportedly telling officers “no more baby parts” when he was arrested and calling himself a “warrior for the babies” in court. Just how much influence did conservative anti-choice rhetoric and politicking influence Dear? We’ll find out during his trial in 2016.
Anna Yocca’s Trial for Attempted Self-Induced Abortion
Police arrested Anna Yocca, a 31-year-old woman from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in December after she allegedly tried to end her pregnancy using a coat hanger at home in her bathtub. During the attempt, Yocca began bleeding heavily and her boyfriend rushed her to the hospital, where doctors delivered a 1.5-pound baby boy. Yocca, who was approximately 24 weeks pregnant when she attempted to terminate her pregnancy, allegedly made “disturbing” statements to hospital staff, including admitting that she tried to self-abort. Her statements led a Rutherford County grand jury to indict her for attempted murder and imprison her in the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center. Should she be convicted, she faces life in prison.
The return of coat-hanger abortions is an alarming indicator of the repressive reproductive rights environment in Tennessee and around the country. Although prominent abortion opponents have claimed they are not interested in prosecuting women who try to self-induce an abortion, the increasing number of women—who include Jennie Lynn McCormack, Jennifer Ann Whalen, and the aforementioned Purvi Patel—who have been thrown in jail for allegedly doing so tells a different story. Prosecutors charged Yocca under the state’s general homicide statute, which opens the constitutional question of whether or not general homicide laws in Tennessee can be used to prosecute women who self-induce an abortion or who otherwise have a failed pregnancy outcome.
In other words, Anna Yocca is a test case for anti-choice prosecutors who want to find a legal hook to charge women who abort with murder.
There’s always something else on the horizon when it comes to reproductive autonomy. We didn’t even include the many other legal challenges to the wave of anti-choice laws passed in 2015, or the explosion of “religious liberties” claims in response to marriage equality and the expanding protection of rights for transgender people. But don’t worry, folks. It may be shaping up to be one helluva year for reproductive rights and justice in the courts, but we’ve got you covered.