News Law and Policy

Philippines Reproductive Health Bill Passes House of Representatives Despite Aggressive Opposition from Bishops

Magdalena Lopez

In the early morning of December 13th, 2012, the Philippines House of Representatives voted to pass on second reading the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011 (commonly known as the RH bill), which will give millions of women access to contraception and other reproductive health services that were in many cases out of their reach.

In the early morning of December 13th, 2012, the Philippines House of Representatives voted to pass the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011 (commonly known as the RH bill), which will give millions of women access to contraception and other reproductive health services that were in many cases out of their reach. Despite widespread support for the move, and the fact that almost a third of Filipino women have an unmet need for contraception, the bill had languished in Congress for almost 15 years.

It was a victory for those of us in the Philippines who want to save lives and improve the well-being of families, an achievement that could not have come about without pro-health champions in Congress and the advocates who fought side-by-side for this bill with me and my colleagues for over a decade. I applaud the legislators who stood up to the bishops and for the will of the people, and the citizens—both Catholic and not Catholic—who refused to be intimidated by the hierarchy’s no-holds-barred campaign against the bill.

The Catholic hierarchy has a lot to answer for in the delay, as Rina Jimenez-David, a journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, explained in Conscience magazine in 2010. She described a call from two bishops asking the president to “slow down” on the RH Bill—one among many, many examples of the hierarchy’s aggressive lobbying. Whether it’s been a show of force in the House of Representatives or pointed sermons against reproductive health from the pulpit, the Catholic hierarchy has consistently pressured the faithful in the pews and in Congress to sink this legislation. For instance, Bishop Arturo Bastes of Romblon targeted House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman,alleging that the lawmaker was “excommunicating himself” with his support for the RH bill.

Just as consistently, however, opinion polls have shown a majority of citizens and Catholics in the Philippines support the government making contraception more available. And the facts have been on their side all along.

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We should remember that the result was also a defeat—for the bishops and their myopic point of view. Their perspective tries to override individual conscience and the rights of the women who have no access to contraception that would allow them to decide whether or when to have children—without which their health and lives may be at risk.

Indeed, the Family Health Survey shows a precipitous rise in the number of maternal deaths in the Philippines in recent years: from 162 per 100,000 live births in 2006 to 221 per 100,000 live births in 2011. A Los Angeles Times article described what life was like for Yolanda Naz, who lives with her husband and eight children in a shack. Contraception was impossible to afford after the local government of Manila, in collusion with the bishops, stopped offering family planning services at public clinics.

“For us, the banning of the pills was ugly,” Naz said. A recent New York Times article contained pictures of a maternity ward in Manila, two women to a bed, that were hard to look at. Yet those who were against the RH bill had the temerity to claim to speak for the poor.

The battle over the RH Bill was also fought among Catholic clergy. In a public disagreement between two Catholic clergymen, Bishop Gabriel Reyes of the Diocese of Antipolo took out a newspaper ad to refute a column in which Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit and dean emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila Law School, portrayed family planning as a personal choice. Bernas disagreed with the bishop that contraception is readily available to the poor. “The exercise of freedom is only possible if one has the capacity to choose,” said the priest.

The bishops showed up in full force to the vote today, and no doubt they were focusing on the thoughts of the lawmakers before them, hoping that all their press statements and pressure tactics had sunk in. They may have, but they did not sway the 113 members who voted for the Bill. Pro-RH politicians like Rep. Kimi Cojuangco cited public health in voting “yes.” 

“I’m a woman of means, then I lived with the poor and saw women suffering. I do this for the women,” she said. “I am a Catholic. The poor demand this national policy be adopted. I am mandated to listen to our people,” said Rep. Rodolfo Biazon after his vote today.

When you’ve pledged to cover up the truth, being forced into the light can be frightening, but I can assure the bishops of the Philippines: none of the doomsday scenarios you depicted will come to pass. In reality, the passage of the RH bill means that the Philippines will be much the same—except healthier and safer for women and their families.

While far from perfect, the Reproductive Health Bill addresses some of the health disparities—including maternal mortality— disproportionately affecting the poorest women, and may help check the rising HIV infection rate in a country where condoms are too expensive for many people. I heartily applaud those who voted in favor of its passage.

The Senate is due to vote on an RH measure as early as next week.

News Family Planning

House GOP Votes Against D.C. Reproductive Health Bill

Christine Grimaldi

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act protects employees from being fired for their choices to use birth control, have a baby, or obtain an abortion.

Republicans led the U.S. House of Representatives in a late Thursday vote to repeal a District of Columbia law that protects employees from retaliation over their reproductive health-care choices.

The 223-192 vote occurred on an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 financial services appropriations bill, which subsequently passed the House that night. The amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), claimed that the amendment to repeal the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA) would protect employers’ religious liberty.

Only two Democrats, Reps. Dan Lipinski (IL) and Collin Peterson (MN), voted in favor of the amendment.

RHNDA amends the District’s Human Rights Act, which deals with employment discrimination. It adds that an employer cannot discriminate in “compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment” because of an employee’s or a dependent’s “reproductive health decision making, including a decision to use or access a particular drug, device or medical service.” In other words, the law protects employees from being fired for their choices to use birth control, have a baby, or have an abortion.

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NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue condemned the vote.

“A woman should never fear being fired for her decision about whether, when, and with whom to grow her family. That decision should be a woman’s alone and not decided for her by an employer or by Congress,” Hogue said in a statement. “Every single person who voted for this should be ashamed, regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on.”

Two dozen Republicans voted against repeal, but they are the outliers in a party that has consistently attacked the law since the Washington, D.C., council unanimously enacted it at the end of 2014. Republicans last year sought to overturn RHNDA through a resolution of disapproval they pushed through the House and another attempt through the budget process.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a non-voting congressional delegate, vowed to again block Republicans at every turn.

“Last year, I was able to remove the harmful rider that blocked RHNDA after it was included in the House bill, and I will be waging another vigorous fight this year,” she said in a statement.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, released a separate statement expressing Democrats’ opposition to the amendment.

“Under the guise of ‘religious liberty,’ this amendment is an unprecedented intrusion into D.C. residents’ personal health choices, and cannot be a part of any final [a]ppropriations law,” she said.

Analysis Law and Policy

Here’s Why 2016 Could Be the Biggest Year for Reproductive Rights and the Courts in Decades

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

The next year promises to be an eventful one on the legal front—though we feel like we say that every December.

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 still shaping 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 Texasthe case challenging the admissions policy at the University of Texas on the grounds that it discriminates against white studentsEvenwel 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 similar to 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.

Trial Courts

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 McCormackJennifer 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.

Anything Else?

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.

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