Commentary Law and Policy

On Eve of “Fortnight of Freedom,” North Dakota Votes By Wide Margin to Maintain Firewall Between Religion and Health Care

Jodi Jacobson

Last night, the voters of North Dakota decisively defeated a ballot initiative that one news outlet called an "ecclesiastical mugging." By a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, voters said "no" to an effort to impose religious doctrine on health care, social policy, and law in the state.

An error contained in this article was corrected at 1:07 pm on Wednesday, June  13th, 2012. The correction, of the percentage share of the vote against Measure 3, appears in the article.

For all the hand-wringing in national polls about what share of the population identifies as “pro-choice” and what share “pro-life,” large majorities of voters in one conservative state after another have shown, resoundingly, that they have no desire to interfere in the personal health concerns or religious decisions of their neighbors.

Voters in South Dakota have twice rejected attempts to impose abortion bans via ballot initiatives. In 2010, voters in Colorado decisively rejected efforts to define a fertilized egg as a person, a step that would have conveyed more rights onto a fertilized egg before pregnancy was even established than on the woman in whose body it floated. A similar so-called personhood initiative was also soundly defeated in Mississippi last fall, again by a large majority of voters.

Now, another conservative state has delivered a huge win in the effort to keep religious ideology out of personal medical decisions. Yesterday, by a margin of 69 66 percent to 34 percent, voters in North Dakota could not have been clearer in rejecting Measure 3, a ballot initiative promoted by, among others, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop (USCCB), whose Orwellian campaign to promote “religious freedom” actually seeks to impose strict Catholic doctrine on everyone, no matter their professed religious affiliation (or lack thereof), via state and federal law. An editorial on Measure 3 in the North Dakota news site, Inforum, called the effort by the USCCB to pass it “an ecclesiastical mugging.”

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Laws such as Measure 3 are being pursued by religious fundamentalists throughout the country, and they have profound implications for the health and rights of individuals, and for public health. Measure 3, for example, would have allowed physicians, nurses, and pharmacists to refuse to provide care and medication which “conflicts with their religious beliefs,” and would have extended “conscience protections” to virtually any employee of any medical facility, ensuring that one reilgious belief could prevail over another in the realm of health care. Measure 3, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, would also have allowed “a man to claim that domestic-violence and child-abuse laws don’t apply to him because his religion tells him he has the right to discipline his wife and children as he sees fit,” and would have allowed employers to use their personal religious beliefs to discriminate against their female employees by denying contraceptive coverage under insurance plans.

Inforum noted:

Proponents of the measure insist the language is clear and ironclad. But respected lawyers and retired jurists who have analyzed the language disagree. They have concluded the measure is so vague and so broad that it opens the door wide to individual and organizational interpretations of “religious liberty” that would result in dire consequences.

And like many other such efforts by the far right to pass laws, Measure 3 was “a dangerous solution in search of a nonexistent problem,” according to the Inforum editorial.

When pressed to cite one – just one – example of denied or even attenuated religious liberty in North Dakota, measure supporters come up empty. There are few states where religious liberty is practiced as openly and frequently as North Dakota. Churches and religious-based organizations do vital and excellent work every day in adoption, refugee resettlement, missions, health care, community service and faith-based education. The spiritual lives of North Dakotans who chose a spiritual life – as most do – are sound and secure.

Measure 3 threatens that honorable heritage and history. It’s a self-serving scheme that has the potential to deeply divide people of faith, and thus undermine religious liberty, not protect it. Vote “no.” 

The win in North Dakota, noted NARAL, “marks the 10th pro-choice victory out of the 11 ballot measures affecting reproductive rights that have appeared before voters since 2005.”

“The message to anti-choice groups is clear,” stated Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, “voters are tired of your divisive attacks that undermine the fundamental American values of freedom and privacy.”

The results are no less important because they come on the eve of the USCCB’s “Fornight for Religious Freedom,” during which the Bishops intend, incomprehensibly, to reprise their role as long-suffering victims of religious discrimination if they are not enabled by law to exert complete control over the health care and reproductive choices of individual women and their families.

After the results were in, Sarah Stoesz, President of the Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota Action Fund, stated:

“Tonight, North Dakotans – with a strong and clear NO vote – affirmed that religious liberty is securely protected in the US Constitution. Measure Three was divisive, unnecessary and could have had dangerous consequences. Tonight’s vote protects state laws against child abuse or neglect, laws against domestic violence, laws that affect access to health care, including birth control, and laws that ensure equal opportunity in the workplace.”

“We applaud North Dakotans Against Measure Three for working tirelessly to educate voters about the dangerous consequences this amendment could have had for women and families in the state.”

Planned Parenthood joined with a number of organizations to defeat Measure 3, including ND Healthy Families Opposing Measure 3, Choice USA, Feminist Majority, and the National Organization for Women. NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a nationwide public-education campaign.

And just as in Mississippi, South Dakota, and Colorado before, North Dakota voters decided that “religious freedom” isn’t compatible with laws mandating that one religious view govern the very health and lives of every person, and most especially women.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Analysis Politics

Trump Pushes Voting Falsehoods as Anniversary of Voting Rights Act Approaches

Ally Boguhn

“Trump's remarks bear zero resemblance to facts on the ground," Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, told Rewire. "It's political bloviating.”

This week, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump spread falsehoods commonly used by conservatives suggesting the outcome of the presidential election might be affected by widespread fraud.

Speaking with the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker on Tuesday at the Trump National Golf Club, Trump tried to explain his repeated suggestion that the upcoming election has been “rigged” against him.

“I don’t like what’s going on with voter ID,” Trump said to Rucker, presumably referring to a string of recent court rulings in states across the country ruling against discriminatory voter identification laws. “I mean the voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote ten times. It’s inconceivable that you don’t have to show identification in order to vote or that that the identification doesn’t have to be somewhat foolproof.”

When Rucker tried to steer the conversation to discuss how the Republican nominee would handle a potential win by Hillary Clinton, Trump pivoted to again push that “there’s a lot of dirty pool played at the election, meaning the election is rigged.”

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“I would not be surprised. The voter ID, they’re fighting as hard as you can fight so that that they don’t have to show voter ID,” said Trump. “So, what’s the purpose of that? How many times is a person going to vote during the day?”

Trump is hardly the first Republican to make the argument. The 2016 GOP platform similarly claims that “voting procedures may be open to abuse. For this reason, we support legislation to require proof of citizenship when registering to vote and secure photo ID when voting.”

But wealthy white Republicans like Trump are not the people who have to worry about elections being stacked against them.

Trump made his comments the same week as the anniversary of the signing by President Lyndon B. Johnson of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, a law designed to ensure that states did not pass laws specifically to prevent Black voters from accessing the ballot box. In Shelby County v. Holder, however, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 gutted key sections of the act, eliminating the requirement that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) “pre-clear” laws passed by states with a history of voter discrimination and leading to the passage of voting restrictions throughout the country.

The protections offered by the VRA “used to require jurisdictions with the most troubling histories of discrimination to run new voting rules by the Justice Department or a federal court before those rules could be implemented,” explained Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ, in an op-ed for the Washington Post on Monday. In those protections’ absence, states were able to push through measures that disproportionately disenfranchised communities of color, those with low incomes, and the elderly.

Though the laws can be challenged—and many have been, such as those recently overturned by courts in North Carolina and Texas—the cases ”can take years to litigate” and “elections don’t stop in the meantime,” wrote Gupta.

As they have begun overturning these restrictions, some courts, such as the Fourth Circuit concerning North Carolina’s law, have noted the discriminatory nature of the laws that are made to “impose cures for problems that did not exist,” such as voter fraud.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James Peterson wrote in his decision striking down a stringent voter ID law, “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities.”

“To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease,” Peterson continued.

That’s because, as the Nation’s Ari Berman, who covers voting rights, pointed out during a recent appearance on Democracy Now!, “You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to impersonate another voter.”

“Trump’s remark [about people voting ten times] is both irresponsible and completely off-mark,” Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections at Common Cause—a nonpartisan organization “dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy”—told Rewire via email Wednesday. “Several studies have been conducted across the country showing that in-person voting fraud is exceedingly rare. It just doesn’t happen on a basis that’s any way significant. Photo ID laws are a cure to a problem that doesn’t exist; we heard the courts say that in both” Wisconsin and Texas cases.

“Trump’s remarks bear zero resemblance to facts on the ground. It’s political bloviating,” added Chapman.

Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman similarly dismissed Trump’s suggestion in a statement posted to the organization’s website. “When courts across the country step up to protect voting rights, that hardly amounts to ‘rigging’ an election,” said Waldman. “The notion of massive fraud is a pernicious myth. It’s irresponsible to peddle it if the goal is to pre-undermine an election outcome.”

And as Rewire has previously reported, “study after study has found little to no evidence” of the existence of voter fraud. When Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School, analyzed instances of voter fraud in 2014 for the Washington Post, he uncovered just 31 instances of it in the more than one billion ballots cast between the years 2000 and 2014.

Another layer of nonsense is added to both Trump’s statement and the party platform, given that many Republicans have been nothing but transparent about what their push for voter ID laws has really been about: suppressing the votes of those less likely to vote for their party. Take, for example, Rep. Glenn Grothman’s (R-WI) April admission that the state’s voter ID law could make “a difference” in electing members of his party.

As the Associated Press reported, the Republican nominee’s claims that the election could be “rigged” for his loss, “could be an effort by Trump to lay the groundwork of an excuse if he goes on to lose the general election.”

Roger Stone, a noted conspiracy theorist and Trump ally, also sounded the alarm that voter fraud could be at play in November and recommended that the Republican nominee start telling media outlets about it. “I think we have widespread voter fraud, but the first thing that Trump needs to do is begin talking about it constantly,” said Stone in an interview for conservative news outlet Breitbart. “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”

Stone went on to warn of impending chaos should Trump lose: “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath,” said Stone. “The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”

But the real danger here may be in the threat to democracy presented by the claims of Trump and Stone. “If Trump protested the results of the election in this way after losing in November, he could exploit a potentially destructive strain in the electorate that would undermine public confidence in elections,” explained the New York Times’ Brendan Nyhan in a Friday article on the long-lasting dangers of Trump’s claim. “Even if he contests a loss, Mr. Trump will not undermine American democracy by himself. The institutions and norms of the system are strong enough to withstand such a challenge. But questioning the integrity of the electoral system could encourage other losing candidates to challenge their own defeats, creating the risk of a more serious crisis of legitimacy in the future.”


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