News Law and Policy

In Startling Move of Consistency, Nebraska Legislature Overrides Governor’s Veto of Prenatal Care for Undocumented Women

Kari Ann Rinker

The Nebraska Legislature has been embroiled in a conservative controversy. The issue at hand has been pre-natal care for immigrant women. The angels and devils sitting on the shoulders and whispering in the ears of the GOP caucus in that state have been tugging their politicians back and forth over the issue, while Nebraskans have waited to see whether hatred for “illegals” would prove more powerful than “saving babies.” 

The Nebraska Legislature has been embroiled in a conservative controversy. The issue at hand has been pre-natal care for immigrant women. The angels and devils sitting on the shoulders and whispering in the ears of the GOP caucus in that state have been tugging their politicians back and forth over the issue, while Nebraskans have waited to see whether hatred for “illegals” would prove more powerful than “saving babies.” 

Yesterday, baby-saving won. From the LA Times:

On the final day of the state’s legislative session Wednesday, lawmakers in the single-chamber, nonpartisan house overrode the governor’s veto of a prenatal health bill for illegal immigrants in a narrow 30-16 vote with three present but not voting.

Usually, “baby-saving” is code for “woman-hating”, but this veto override provided a rare moment of consistency within the anti-choice political tide within that state since they couldn’t really hide he irony of denying pre-natal care to women in need.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Nonetheless this is but a partial victory.  Women, and most particularly immigrant women, have served as political punching bags of late at the state and federal levels. And the prospect of protections for the health and rights of undocumented immigrant women provided fodder to Republicans opposing reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  

The National Latina Institute provides a perfect analysis of why this victory should be coupled with rightful criticism: 

“We applaud the restoration of funding for pregnancy-related care,” said González-Rojas, “But the language used in this legislation is a dangerous development for immigrant women’s health and human dignity.”

Immigrant women currently face numerous barriers to accessing the care that they need, and these barriers lead to disproportionate negative health outcomes that affect entire families. Immigrant women deserve to access prenatal care as a matter of basic human rights and dignity, and their characterization in the debate surrounding the Nebraska legislation as mere vessels is inhumane and deeply disturbing. NLIRH will continue to work with lawmakers to craft legislation that rightly places women at the center of health policy, because we know that women are often the backbone of our families and communities.

As the GOP’s pro-life hypocrisy continues to play out in red state politics, it will be interesting to see how much shifting of political positions will be required to reconcile stances taken surrounding women’s health and wellbeing.  It will also be important for women’s health advocates to view these shifts with a cautious eye. Women should not merely accept what scraps of justice are tossed under the table to them without vetting the implications within the full spectrum of their health care needs and the overall impact on their overall wellbeing. And they should not shirk from demanding every ounce of justice that is due. 

News Human Rights

Lawsuit: Religious Groups Are Denying Abortion Care to Teen Refugees

Nicole Knight Shine

The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services.

Two years ago, 17-year-old Rosa was raped as she fled north from her home country in Central America to the United States. Placed in a Catholic shelter in Florida, the teen learned she was pregnant, and told shelter officials that if she couldn’t end the pregnancy, she’d kill herself. She was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Upon her release, the facility in which she’d been originally placed rejected her because of her desire for an abortion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday. So did another. Both, reads the lawsuit, were federal contractors paid to care for unaccompanied minors like Rosa.

Rosa’s story is one in a series sketched out in a 16-page complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees—including nearly $20 million over two years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion. The grantees are paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house and care for young refugees.

The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, amounts to a fresh test of the degree to which Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups can claim exemptions from federal laws and regulations on religious grounds.

“Religious liberties do not include the ability to impose your beliefs on a vulnerable population and deny them legal health care,” said Jennifer Chou, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a phone interview with Rewire. “The government is delegating responsibility … to these religiously affiliated organizations who are then not acting in the best interest of these young people.”

Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the HHS, which includes the ORR, told Rewire via email that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Escaping turmoil and abuse in their home countries, young refugees—predominantly from Central America—are fleeing to the United States, with 33,726 arriving in 2015, down from 57,496 the year before. About one-third are girls. As many as eight in ten girls and women who cross the border are sexually assaulted; it is unknown how many arrive in need of abortion care.

The federal ORR places unaccompanied minors with organizations that are paid to offer temporary shelter and a range of services, including reproductive health care, while the youths’ applications for asylum are pending. But documents the ACLU obtained indicate that some groups are withholding that health care on religious grounds and rejecting youths who request abortion care.

The 1997 “Flores agreement” and ORR’s contracts with grantees, which the ACLU cites in its lawsuit, require referrals to “medical care providers who offer pregnant [unaccompanied immigrant minors] the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding prenatal care and delivery; infant care, foster care, or adoption; and pregnancy termination.”

In 2016, the federal government awarded 56 grants to 30 organizations to provide care to unaccompanied minors, including 11 that the ACLU claims impose religious restrictions on reproductive health care.

In one case, ORR officials struggled to find accommodations for 14-year-old Maria, who wanted to end her pregnancy, according to the complaint. An ORR official wrote, according to a document the ACLU obtained, that the agency would have liked to transfer Maria to Florida to be near family, but “both of the shelters in Florida are faith-based and will not take the child to have this procedure,” meaning an abortion.

In another, the complaint reads, 16-year-old Zoe was placed with Youth for Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia, where she learned she was pregnant. She asked for abortion counseling, which was delayed nearly two weeks, the complaint says. Learning of her decision to end the pregnancy, Youth for Tomorrow asked to transfer Zoe elsewhere because of its abortion prohibition, even though Zoe said she was happy at the shelter.

For vulnerable youths, such transfers represent a form of “secondary trauma,” according to the ACLU’s Chou.

“These women have already endured so much,” she told Rewire. “The process of transferring these youths from shelter to shelter tears them away from their only existing support system in the U.S.”

Federal officials, according to the complaint, were aware that the religious grantees would withhold abortion referrals. In one case, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was awarded more than $8 million between 2013 and 2016, although it stated in its grant application that rape survivors wouldn’t be offered abortion care, but instead permitted to “process the trauma of the rape while also exploring the decision of whether to keep the baby or plan an adoption.”

The lawsuit also claims that a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included language requiring unaccompanied minors who were pregnant to be given information and counseling about pregnancy termination, but the ORR removed that language after the USCCB complained.

The USCCB did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. But in a letter last year to the ORR, the USCCB and five religious groups, including some ORR grantees, wrote they could not facilitate health-care services for unaccompanied minors that run contrary to their beliefs.

The lawsuit is the second the ACLU has filed recently against the federal government over religious privileges.

Last month, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act suit demanding that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients have reported being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.

In 2009, the ACLU also sued the federal government for allowing USCCB to impose religious restrictions on a taxpayer-funded reproductive health program for trafficking survivors. In 2012, a district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, and the government appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal later dismissed the case as “moot” because the government did not renew USCCB’s contract.

News Abortion

This Democratic-Dominated Legislature Won’t Stop Attacking Abortion Access

Teddy Wilson

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others.

You might not expect anti-choice measures to churn through a legislature in which Republicans hold 15 percent of the seats.

But it’s in Rhode Island that Democrats, not GOP lawmakers, have introduced every anti-choice measure in 2016.

Reproductive rights are under threat in states dominated by GOP legislators as well as states with Democratic legislative majorities, and laws attacking abortion access that have been passed in recent years have received at least some Democratic support.

While there are a variety of factors that contribute to the prevalence of anti-choice Democrats in Rhode Island, the lawmakers who are proponents of these bills look very much like the proponents of these bills in red states.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Rewire analysis of legislation introduced in state legislatures during the first three months of 2016 found that 60 percent of the 311 anti-choice bills introduced were sponsored by white male Republicans. Male lawmakers introduced about seven out of every ten anti-choice bills during that time. 

White male Democrats sponsored nine of the 14 anti-choice bills this year in the Rhode Island state legislature. 

Rhode Island’s Democratic legislators hold a 63-11 majority in the house and a 32-6 state senate majority. But that doesn’t translate to a legislative body supportive of maintaining and expanding abortion access and reproductive health services. 

NARAL Pro-Choice America this year gave Rhode Island a failing grade on its annual scorecard of states’ reproductive freedom, along with Republican-dominated legislatures in Alabama, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas, among others. 

Susan Yolen, vice president of public policy and advocacy of Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, told the Providence Journal that there is a “big information gap” between the perception and reality of abortion politics in Rhode Island.

“People assume Rhode Island is going in the right direction when it comes to rights—it’s a blue state,” Yolen said.

Amy Retsinas Romero, president of Women’s Health and Education Fund, spoke during a March conference on reproductive rights at Rhode Island College about the challenges people face when seeking reproductive health care in the state.

“In Rhode Island we are an F. We are not that far from Texas,” Romero said, reported the Brown Daily Herald. “We should all be ashamed of ourselves.”

Rep. Edith Ajello (D-Providence) told Rewire that Rhode Island is in “pretty good shape” in ensuring access to abortion care and reproductive health care. She said there remain legislative issues that need to be addressed.

“We have laws on the books that have been declared unconstitutional. For instance, the spousal notice regarding abortion,” Ajello said, referring to the state’s requirement of notice to an abortion patient’s husband before the procedure. “It would be good to get rid of those and we have legislation in place to do that, but it has yet to pass.”

Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) sponsored legislation this year that would repeal the so-called spousal notice law. HB 7612 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee.

Ajello sponsored HB 7444, which would prohibit the state from interfering with a person’s decision to prevent, commence, continue, or terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability. Ajello said that the bill would codify into law protections for reproductive rights.

There have, however, been far more bills introduced to restrict reproductive rights, all of which have been introduced by Ajello’s fellow Democrats.

There have been 14 anti-choice bills introduced this year in the Rhode Island legislation. This collection of bills would restrict reproductive rights in a number of ways, including restricting funding for abortion care for low-income people in the state. It’s an issue that has been debated in the state for the last few years.

It’s not only Rhode Island Democrats in the house and state senate that back measures designed to chip away at abortion access.

Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) last year signed a budget that left nearly 9,000 residents without comprehensive abortion coverage through their insurance plans. The budget included a requirement that health insurers who offer plans on Rhode Island’s health insurance exchange to also offer plans that exclude coverage for elective abortion care.

The contingent of anti-choice Democrats and the few Republicans lawmakers does not appear to have enough political power to move most anti-choice bills through the legislature. Since the legislature is and has been dominated by one party for so long, policy disagreements have developed along ideological rather than partisan lines, political observers told Rewire

Ajello said in an interview with Rewire that there are members of the legislature who are anti-choice but are also “quite progressive” on other issues, such as marriage equality. 

“In the way that I see social conservatives in Texas, I don’t see those differences [in Rhode Island lawmakers],” Ajello. “We work together, cooperating on issues that we agree about and being respectful on issues that we don’t.”

H 7760, sponsored by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro (D-Westerly), would prohibit health plan coverage purchased in whole or in part with any state or federal funds through the Rhode Island health benefits exchange from providing coverage for induced abortions, unless it was to save the life of the pregnant person or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.

Azzinaro has long advocated prohibiting health-care coverage of abortion care. Azzinaro said during a debate in 2013 about the state’s health-care exchange that tax dollars should not be used to fund abortion care.

“You want choice?” Azzinaro said, reported the Providence Journal. “We talk about choice, what choice do you have if you only have a plan that says we’re going to fund abortions.”

The house judiciary committee recommended in March that H 7760 be held for further study. State Sen. Marc Cote (D-Woonsocket) sponsored a companion bill pending in the senate judiciary committee.

A number of other bills designed to restrict abortion and reproductive health care have been introduced in the Rhode Island legislature. Many of the proposed measures create the same rhetoric surrounding anti-choice bills in state legislatures held by GOP majorities. 

H 7764, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Fellela (D-Johnston), would prohibit a person from performing or attempting to perform an abortion with the knowledge that the pregnant person is seeking the abortion solely on account of the sex of the fetus. 

The bill charges that any physician who intentionally violates this provision would be considered to have engaged in unprofessional conduct, and their license would be subject to suspension or revocation by the State Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline.

There is no documentation that so-called sex-selective abortions are widespread in the United States. Proponents of the bans often justify the anti-choice measure by using cultural stereotypes that target immigrant people of color.

Bills to ban sex-selection abortion care have been introduced in several states this year. Fellela sponsored a similar bill in 2014.

H 7764 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee; the companion bill S 2612, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Crowley (D-Central Falls), is pending in the senate judiciary committee.

H 7282 and S 2216, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence) and Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Middletown), would prohibit a person from performing, or attempting to perform a “dismemberment abortion” on a fetus unless it is necessary to save the life of the patient or if the continued pregnancy would cause irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant patient.

State courts have blocked such measures passed by Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma and Kansas. West Virginia’s GOP-held legislature in March voted to override the veto of a similar bill.

H 7282 was held for further study by the house judiciary committee, and S 2216 is pending in the senate judiciary committee.