News Abortion

On the Anniversary of Roe, Silence Surrounds a Woman’s Fundamental Rights in Jackson, Mississippi

Robin Marty

When only one side feels comfortable discussing abortion, the issue will inevitably seem settled.

Robin Marty is reporting from Jackson, Mississippi this week.

For the activists on both sides of the abortion debate, as well as those in the national media who are invested in the outcome of a state being completely without a public abortion provider, Jackson, Mississippi is the epicenter for what could be a moment that changes the history of reproductive rights.

On the other hand, the residents of Jackson aren’t nearly as interested.

Two sets of foes met on Saturday to engage in what is bound to be a common sight for the next few days at Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Anti-choice protesters gathered on the sidewalk, holding a “religious service” while reproductive rights activists surrounded the clinic holding signs defending a woman’s right to determine their futures. The protesters were mostly out-of-towners brought in from Operation Save America, and the clinic defenders were primarily recruited from adjacent states, too.

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To find the locals, you would have had better luck looking inside the clinic.

The 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is passing with little reflection in the city that is often viewed as the front-line of the abortion wars. If asked directly, the average Jackson citizen isn’t likely to have much to say regarding women’s reproductive rights. Abortion is an issue that they consider mostly settled in the state, where most believe in a stark “dead babies or live babies” absolutism and know which side of that line they fall on.

“The ordinary citizen of Jackson, if I called them up and said ‘Let’s talk about this issue,’ would say, ‘I am anti-abortion and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It’s black and white,” a woman told me in an interview.

Bringing up the topic head on is likely to get you shut down, the otherwise unflappable southern hospitality rescinded for a moment until the topic can be politely but firmly changed and no opening for debate or discussion is acknowledged as a possibility.

While the legislature seeks out ways to end access to safe abortion care for good (while at the same time not concerning themselves with policies that would either prevent it in the first place or supporting the new mothers after the fact), the general population isn’t following the news surrounding the clinic’s potential closure—or its potentially historical significance—at all.

Even those who are following the saga aren’t speaking out much in defence of JWHO. Like the global gag rule that falls on family planning advocacy organizations, refusing to allow them funding if they so much as mention abortion, or the more local versions of state legislatures pulling funding directly from any group that even refers for the procedure, those in Jackson who do believe women and teens should have access to safe, legal abortion services find themselves unable to speak out publicly about the issue.

Those who have ties to the government in any way—either a concern that their non-profit might lose funding, a contract might be lost, business boycotted, a new project dismissed or a political appointment shunted—find themselves intimidated into this cone of silence that passes as acceptance of the legislature’s anti-choice, anti-woman agenda. The people who have less to lose by government pressure can be silenced by another means. They are afraid, too, although not afraid of violence or outright intimidation. Despite the increasing hostility that is seen in other low-access states, where doctors are picketed at their homes, or even the obsessive attention of the militant activism of Operation Save America, few of the reproductive rights supporters say that they feel concerned about potential violence breaking out.

“This big fear out here isn’t violence, it’s social stigma,” explained one activist, who for that reason asked that her name not be used. “There isn’t anyone out here who can support the clinic publicly without facing some sort of personal repercussions.”

That concern was obvious in the people to whom I spoke. One woman who supported the clinic asked that I not identify her because she was beginning a new project in the arts unrelated to any sort of social issues, but was still concerned that being identified could effect their fundraising efforts.

She told me of a world where vocal anti-abortion sentiment colors everything in the political arena, where current and aspiring lawmakers use it to make their names and win support, regardless of the actual impact it would have in their potential roles if they win their races. She mentioned a friend of her daughter who ran for treasurer, who was  highly qualified in his own right, who made sure that his views on opposing abortion was listed high in his reasons for running for office.

“It’s a sort of television activism,” she she explained of the anti-choice activism in the city. “It’s like the moments you see on tv where everyone gathers together to wish off a soldier, and the wife and children are crying and everyone stands up and applauds the soldier. That is useless to the soldier. He comes back maimed, he can’t make a living, who cares that he got applauded when he got on the airplane. It’s armchair activism, it’s done for the cameras. It’s not real life.”

With abortion opposition a publicly embraced default, those who aren’t as enthused about making everyone else’s personal and medical choices for them are less willing to speak out about the issue. “I think there are tons of people like myself who just don’t bring it up. You just don’t fight the battle.”

The inability to speak out in favor of reproductive rights colors not just the abortion debate, but the policy debate around teen pregnancy and prevention. It is nearly impossible to address the issue in any meaningful way when you fear repercussions from a state government adamant in punishing “sinning” through state laws. The Mississippi state legislature’s approved approach to battling teen pregnancy evokes memories of Dr. John Willke’s sixties guide to teaching teens about sex, which advocated banning drive-in movies due to their potential as pits of wanton lust. Sex-ed in the state is such where condoms can be viewed as long as the packages aren’t opened, described but not demonstrated. One supporter of comprehensive sex ed explained the rules: no live or filmed demonstration of how to put on a condom can be shown in a classroom. Pictures are allowed, but less effective. My question on whether a multiple pictures could be put together and riffled through quickly like a homemade flip book would break the rules was met with laughter, but no definitive answer either way.

Abstinence-only education is its own religion, a feverent belief that if left with no ability to have safe sex, teens won’t have any sex at all, just like if offered no place to have an abortion, women will give up and carry to term.

In some ways, it may be a fair belief. Carrying to term without necessarily wanting another child is likely to happen already even with the clinic open. Those are the situations that are making an even greater impact on a state that already suffers from the highest poverty rate in the nation. The children of Mississippi have the lowest quality of life in the nation according to the 2012 “Kids Count” survey, and the same legislature that is obsessed with the “health and safety” of women to the point where they have made up unnecessarly regulations for doctors who provide abortions at the same time are ignoring the safety and well-being of the children that come into this world, regardless of whether their births were intended or not.

So how do you talk about a subject that is so obviously taboo? How do you open up a conversation about women’s autonomy, privacy, and health in a community that believes that “private” issues should be just that—something polite people don’t discuss in public?

It’s not impossible. The citizens of Mississippi defied all expectations and voted down Amendment 26, a so-called personhood law, refusing to grant legal rights to fertilized eggs. When presented with consequences if so-called “personhood” were made law, including the banning of birth control, women dying of ectopic pregnancies, and the potential end of some fertility treatments, the public took a firm stance on the side of women over zygotes. Mississippi voters were ready to speak publicly about reproductive freedom and the rights of women, and they supported both.

The “Vote No” campaign succeeded not just in retaining the rights of women and families in the face of an anti-choice agenda, but in finding a way to talk about reproductive rights without using a language of “abortion” or “choice.” Instead, it flipped the rhetoric of traditional abortion opponents on its head. “Personhood” became the controversial issue, and voting it down was maintaining the status quo.

Amendment 26 failed not because it banned abortion, but it tried to tell Mississippians how they were allowed to create their families—without birth control, without fertility treatments and without the ability to act preventvely to save a pregnant women’s life it it would be put in danger.

To keep abortion accessible in Mississippi, the zealous anti-choice legislature is only one facet of the problem. The bigger issue will be finding an acceptable way to discuss abortion. To come at it through the lens of family planning, as familial privacy, or in another way that defuses the heavy, controversial overtones implied in the word “abortion” itself.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”

News Human Rights

Remaining Charges Dropped Against Officers in Freddie Gray Case

Michelle D. Anderson

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Three Baltimore Police Department officers charged in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray will not go to trial as originally planned.

Chief Deputy State Attorney Michael Schatzow of the Baltimore City State Attorney’s Office said during a court hearing Wednesday that his office would not prosecute Officer Garrett Miller and Sgt. Alicia White or attempt to retry Officer William Porter, whose case ended in a mistrial in December.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby had charged Miller, White, and Porter, along with Officer Edward Nero, Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., and Lt. Brian Rice, in Gray’s May 2015 death in police custody.

The officers faced an array of charges, ranging from second-degree depraved-heart murder and reckless endangerment to second-degree assault and involuntary manslaughter.

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All of the officers pleaded not guilty.

Judge Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams acquitted Nero, Goodson, and Rice during bench trials that ended in May, June, and July, respectively. Miller’s trial was set to begin Wednesday; White, October 13, and Porter, September 6.

Gray, who was Black, died of a neck injury a week after being taken into police custody in April 2015. The 25-year-old’s death led to widespread protest and civil disobedience against racial injustice and a number of reforms in Baltimore and across Maryland.

Mosby, in filing charges against the officers, attempted to hold law enforcement accountable for failing to secure Gray in a seat belt after transporting him in a police van following his arrest, among other alleged negligent acts. Prosecutors charged that Gray was illegally detained before police officers found a knife in his pocket.

Mosby stood by her decision to bring charges against the six officers during a brief press conference held near the Gilmor Homes public housing project, where Gray was taken into police custody.

“We stand by the medical examiners determination that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide,” Mosby said.

She touted her team’s success during the trials, including an appellate court victory that led some officers to testify against one another and asserted that a summary judgment was among many reasons she had “legitimate reasons” to pursue criminal charges.

Mosby praised the reforms that had come over the past year, including a new “use of force” policy Baltimore police instituted this year. The new policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability. It marks the first rewrite of the policy since 2003.

“For those that believe I am anti-police, that’s simply not the case. I am anti-police brutality,” Mosby said.

The conference was the first time Mosby had spoken in months, since a gag order imposed by Williams had kept prosecution and defense alike from commenting on the police trials.

The decision to drop charges stemmed from “an apparent acknowledgement” that convictions were unlikely for the remaining officers, the Baltimore Sun reported.

This was because the prosecution would face major challenges during Miller’s trial since they wouldn’t be able to use anything he said on the witness stand during Nero’s trial in an attempt to convict him. Miller had spoken during Nero’s trial in an immunized testimony and with protections against self incrimination, the Sun reported.

Williams said in previous trials that prosecutors failed to show sufficient evidence to support their stance that the officers acted recklessly and caused Gray’s death. He said prosecutors wanted him to rely on “presumptions or assumptions” and rejected the notion that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride” in the police vehicle, according to numerous news reports.

The decision to drop charges drew criticism from many activists and citizens alike, but drew praise from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 union, which had repeatedly urged the prosecution to drop charges.

Baltimore Bloc, a local grassroots group, said in a statement this spring that Mosby should be removed from office for failing to secure convictions against officers and continued to criticize her on Twitter after the announcement that charges would be dropped.