Commentary Abortion

Hobby Lobby Wants to Deny Insurance Coverage of Birth Control. It Should Stop Selling Knitting Needles, Too

Lynn Paltrow

While Hobby Lobby opposes offering contraceptive coverage, it does sell three types of knitting needles, just the kind that in the not-so-distant past, women who became pregnant and didn’t have access to legal abortion used to try and end their pregnancies themselves.

Read more of our coverage on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases here.

Hobby Lobby is the Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores that is challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA), claiming that the health-care reform law violates the corporation’s free exercise of religion by requiring it to provide their employees with a health plan that covers the intrauterine device (IUD) and oral contraceptive pills. Hobby Lobby asserts, without medical foundation, that these contraceptive are really abortifacients.

While Hobby Lobby opposes offering contraceptive coverage, it does sell three types of knitting needles: single point, circular, and double point needles, ranging in size from 0 to 50. The needles come in a wide variety of colors and materials (including wood, plastic, bamboo, acrylic, and aluminum). They range in price from $2.59 to $13.99.

This is worth noting because, in the not-so-distant past, women who became pregnant and didn’t have access to legal abortion used a variety of objects, including wire coat hangers and knitting needles, to try and end their pregnancies themselves.

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One of these women was Marla Elaine Pitchford, a 22-year-old white woman from Scottsville, Kentucky. The year wasn’t 1950, or 1960, or even early 1973 before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. It was June of 1978, five years after the Supreme Court recognized in Roe that women have a fundamental right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term.

According to numerous media reports, Ms. Pitchford was a religiously observant Southern Baptist for whom the idea of an abortion was repugnant. When she became pregnant, the predominant emotion she felt was shame. The only person she eventually told was her boyfriend, Dwight Mundy, who refused to marry her, and urged her to have an abortion.

Ms. Pitchford and Mr. Mundy visited an abortion clinic together. The clinic informed her that she was too far along in her pregnancy to obtain an abortion anywhere in the state. Ms. Pitchford later explained:

When I was examined they told me I was 24 weeks pregnant. Too late to have an abortion. I thought I was only 18 to 20 weeks at the most. I was upset and scared. The only place I could go that late in a pregnancy was New York, Kansas City or Atlanta. I had no more money and couldn’t afford that. I went back to my hotel room. I was very upset and crying. I had no way out. I felt like dying. The next morning when I got up, I thought I could give myself an abortion. So I put a plastic knitting needle in my uterus.

In her own words, Ms. Pitchford was “just desperate for a way out.” She didn’t tell anyone about what she had done, including her boyfriend.

As a result of this self-abortion attempt, she developed a high fever and became seriously ill. Her boyfriend thought she was miscarrying and took her the hospital.

At the hospital, Ms. Pitchford was given a labor-inducing drug. She delivered a stillborn child. She also delivered a six-inch, white plastic knitting needle that was embedded in the placenta. The delivery room staff notified the coroner who then alerted the police. Two days later, Ms. Pitchford woke up with two police officers at her bedside who were there to interrogate her.

Ms. Pitchford was arrested and charged with manslaughter and performing an illegal abortion. A court eventually dismissed the manslaughter charge, but the illegal abortion charge—with a possible sentence of ten to 20 years of incarceration—remained.

Compared to women who died from self-abortion, Ms. Pitchford was lucky; she lived. She survived her desperate self-abortion attempt and had the help of a dedicated public defender. Grounds existed to challenge the application of the state’s abortion law to the pregnant woman herself. Her attorney, however, believed that her client was too emotionally fragile to endure years of uncertainty while the case worked its way through the courts. They opted for a jury trial at which her attorney argued that Ms. Pitchford was temporarily insane when she attempted the abortion.

The strategy worked. After deliberating for barely an hour, the jury acquitted Ms. Pitchford.

Today, abortion clinics are being shut down and well-financed corporations are fighting to deny women health coverage for contraception and abortion services. Women who become pregnant and want to end those pregnancies have options other than the knitting needles that were often used before Roe, and sometimes after. For example, the drug, misoprostolwhen taken correctly, has an 85 to 90 percent effectiveness rate in safely ending an early pregnancy. That is, if it can be obtained and if women aren’t arrested for using it. Meanwhile, as abortion becomes less and less accessible and more and more stigmatized, no one should be surprised to find women once again using knitting needles to end their pregnancies.

On March 25, lawyers for Hobby Lobby will argue their case before the United States Supreme Court. If Hobby Lobby wins, more women will experience unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. At the oral argument, I hope at least one of the justices will ask whether the corporation, if it wins its lawsuit, plans to stop selling knitting needles to the employees who lose their contraceptive coverage and become pregnant.

The author wishes to thank Katherine Jack, JD, for her research documenting the Marla Elaine Pitchford case.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted the date of the Supreme Court hearing. It will be held on March 25. We regret the error.

Analysis Politics

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s Record on Women’s Health at Center of Heated Race

Ally Boguhn

Sen. Kelly Ayotte's defenders have made claims about her commitment to "strengthening women's health" through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

The tight race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) could help determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate after the November elections. In recent months, a key point of contention has emerged among Ayotte’s supporters and critics: the senator’s record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

Planned Parenthood Votes released an ad in April claiming Ayotte is “bad for New Hampshire women,” signaling the continuation of the heated narrative in the lead-up to the election. Ayotte’s defenders have responded to the accusations with claims of her commitment to “strengthening women’s health” through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

“For months, Senator Kelly Ayotte has followed party bosses, refusing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. And for years, Ayotte has waited for an opportunity to push for someone to end access to safe, legal abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade,” claims the Planned Parenthood Votes ad, before playing an August 2010 clip of Ayotte advocating for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. “For New Hampshire women, the consequences of letting Kelly Ayotte play politics with the Constitution could last a lifetime.”

The $400,000 ad buy, slated to run on broadcast and cable in New Hampshire, has been Planned Parenthood Votes’ first on-air ad targeting a Senate race in the 2016 election cycle. The organization, a national independent expenditure political committee, is criticizing Ayotte for claiming to protect women but failing to protect reproductive rights, also drawing on her pledge to obstruct filling the vacant Supreme Court seat in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

“Kelly Ayotte may try to paint herself as pro-woman, but her record tells a very different story. Every chance she’s gotten she’s voted to ‘defund’ Planned Parenthood and cut women off from essential health care like birth control and breast and cervical cancer screenings,” said Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, in a statement on the organization’s new ad. “She has been advocating for years to ban women’s access to safe, legal abortion, and it’s clear she now sees her chance in the Supreme Court process. Kelly Ayotte is refusing to do her job, and abdicating her constitutional duty, in order to push an extreme agenda that no one in New Hampshire wants.”

Ayotte’s campaign manager, Jon Kohan, meanwhile, defended the senator’s record on women’s health and rights in a press release. He wrote, “Kelly’s long record of standing up for New Hampshire women and families is clear, and she cares deeply about ensuring all women have access to health services.” The release included a bulleted list providing examples of Ayotte’s work “strengthening women’s health care,” “supporting working women,” and “protecting domestic or sexual assault victims.”

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The claims may be familiar to those following the New Hampshire race. After Hassan announced her candidacy in October, for example, One Nation, an issue-advocacy organization that does not need to disclose where their funding comes from and is affiliated with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, pushed a 17-day, $1.4 million ad campaign touting Ayotte’s record on women’s health.

Hassan, on the other hand, has the support of organizations such as EMILY’s List, whose stated mission is to help elect pro-choice women into office. After endorsing the governor in the Senate race, the group added Ayotte to its “On Notice” list for “voting for anti-woman legislation and standing in the way of policies that give working families a fair shot.”

But with both sides of the race simultaneously claiming opposing positions on whether Ayotte has been good for women and reproductive rights, what is the truth?

Ayotte has made no secret of her desire to defund Planned Parenthood, and she “has shown support for defunding the organization or opposition to continued funding in at least six votes,” according to PolitiFact, though some of those votes were procedural. Though she famously chided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for attempting to shut down the government over his crusade to strip the reproductive health provider of money in the wake of anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos, it was because she didn’t view his methods as a winning strategy for accomplishing that goal—not because she didn’t believe in the cause.

In a letter to Cruz, Ayotte told the Republican presidential candidate that she too is “deeply disturbed by” CMP’s videos and doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should have federal funding.”This callous disregard for the dignity of human life is heinous, and I do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and harvests the body parts of unborn children,” wrote Ayotte. She went on to ask what Cruz’s “strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood” really was, given that their mutual efforts to redirect the organization’s funding to other clinics had failed.

Planned Parenthood does not use its federal funding to provide abortions; its fetal tissue donation program has been cleared of wrongdoing in multiple state and federal investigations. And despite claims from conservatives, including Ayotte, that other facilities could provide Planned Parenthood’s patients with health care should the organization lose funding, the Guttmacher Institute found that “credible evidence suggests this is unlikely. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the sole safety-net provider of contraceptive care.”

“Our analysis shows unequivocally that Planned Parenthood plays a major role in delivering publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies to women who are in need of such care nationwide,” the Guttmacher Institute concluded.

Ayotte has also supported numerous other anti-choice restrictions and legislation, including a 2015 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unfounded claim that fetuses feel pain at this point in pregnancy.

According to NPR, Ayotte has “been a hero to anti-abortion activists since 2005, when as New Hampshire attorney general she defended a parental notification law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The law required doctors to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion at least 48 hours prior to the procedure, and contained no exceptions for the health of the patient. The Court ultimately ruled against Ayotte, affirming that states may not enact abortion laws that don’t protect women’s health and safety.

National Right to Life found that the New Hampshire senator voted “with” the anti-choice organization in all 14 of the scored votes from 2012 to 2015 it examined.

In 2012, Ayotte co-sponsored the failed “Blunt Amendment,” which would have allowed exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit for any employers or insurers that had moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And in a 2014 commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Ayotte and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) defended the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which grants some employers the right to deny contraceptive coverage to their staff based on the owner’s religious beliefs, falsely claiming that the ruling did “not take away women’s access to birth control.”

Ayotte’s campaign is quick to point to legislation sponsored by the senator that would have allowed over-the-counter contraception as proof that she cares about women’s health. Reproductive health advocates, however, called Ayotte’s Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act a “sham” when it was introduced in 2015. Though the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) generally supports over-the-counter birth control, the organization’s president Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco, said in a statement that Ayotte’s measure “would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive.”

Paid leave is yet another issue in which Ayotte has put forth legislation in the name of helping women. Ayotte introduced the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act of 2015 in March of that year, claiming it would “allow greater flexibility for workers who are looking to better balance their work-life demands.” Analysis by ThinkProgress, however, found that the measure “could weaken already weak rules that require workers to be paid extra for working extra hours, thus ensuring that workweeks don’t grow out of control and employees are compensated fairly.”

Earlier in 2015, Ayotte signed on as a co-sponsor of the Working Families Flexibility Act. According to a statement from the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) condemning the legislation, the act claimed to “give hourly workers more flexibility and time with their loved ones by allowing them to choose paid time off, rather than time-and-a-half wages, as compensation for working more than 40 hours in one week.” However, the bill did “not promote family friendly or flexible workplaces,” explained the nonprofit organization in a fact sheet. “Instead, it would erode hourly workers’ ability to make ends meet, plan for family time, and have predictability, stability, and true flexibility at work.”

Ayotte’s record on equal pay has been similarly debunked by advocates. One of the policies highlighted by Ayotte’s campaign in the wake of Planned Parenthood Votes’ ad was the senator’s introduction of the Gender Advancement In Pay (GAP) Act in September 2015, which she reintroduced ahead of Equal Pay Day this April. The measure was meant to make clear that “employers must pay men and women equal wages for equal work, without reducing the opportunity for employers to reward merit,” according to a press release from Ayotte’s office upon the initial release of the bill.

Critics argued that Ayotte’s bill was nothing other than an election-year stunt. New Hampshire state Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) told NH1 News that Ayotte’s move was an attempt to look “for some cover … in an effort to be more in line with” New Hampshire voters, after Ayotte voted against other fair pay measures. However, Soucy said, the legislation didn’t really address the issue of pay equity. “Sen. Ayotte’s bill attempts to create paycheck fairness but doesn’t in fact do so because employers could preclude their employees from discussing what they make with their fellow employees,” claimed Soucy.

Similar arguments were made when Ayotte co-sponsored another equal pay measure, the Workplace Advancement Act, with Sens. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in April 2015. Though the legislation would ban employers from retaliating against their staff, it failed to garner support from Democrats. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the bill would have done “more harm than good” as it “entirely [ignored] the many loopholes and inadequacies in current equal pay laws and simply [stated] that pay discrimination ‘violates existing law.'”

Their arguments are bolstered by Ayotte’s repeated votes against the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, though as Politifact again pointed out, some of these votes were procedural and not against the bill itself. Ayotte did cast one vote in favor of ending debate on the measure and advancing it; the fact-checking site noted, though, that Ayotte’s office reportedly did so in the ultimately denied hopes of changing the bill.

Had it passed, the legislation would have updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to include protections such as prohibiting retaliation against employees who share their salary and strengthening penalties for those who violate the law. Ayotte claims she voted against the measure because it “could reduce the ability of employers to award merit pay for good performance and limit the opportunity for women to have flexible work schedules,” according to a press release on the matter.

Speaking at a town hall event in 2013, Ayotte had previously justified her vote against equal pay legislation by asserting that it “created a lot of additional burdens that would … make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs.” The New Hampshire senator went on to add that there were already laws in place that could help address the issue.

There are, however, some examples of Ayotte supporting and introducing legislation that would help women. In June 2015, Ayotte co-sponsored the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect pregnant people from workplace discrimination. Though the legislation never came to a vote, it would have helped “end … discrimination and promote healthy pregnancies and the economic security of pregnant women and their families,” according to the NPWF. That same year, the New Hampshire senator co-sponsored the Protect Access to Lifesaving Screenings (PALS) Act, bipartisan legislation that would have safeguarded access to free annual mammograms for women ages 40 to 74. Ayotte co-sponsored the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act in 2014 and 2015, which, according to Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s website, would “protect students and boost accountability and transparency at colleges and universities” when it comes to sexual assault. Ayotte also co-sponsored the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013 to address the issue in the military.

Overall, Ayotte has signed onto or supported numerous pieces of legislation that at face value seem to promote reproductive health and women’s rights. Further examination shows, however, that—with a few exceptions—they largely failed to hold up to scrutiny. While Ayotte’s campaign alleges that many of her measures would have helped women and families, analysis suggests that her conservative solutions to addressing these issues often would have made the problems worse. This, coupled with the senator’s fierce anti-choice advocacy, will no doubt keep this portion of Ayotte’s record under tight observation as November’s election approaches.


House Republicans Move to Reverse Federal LGBTQ Protections

Christine Grimaldi

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, said it’s “frankly shocking” lawmakers would consider these types of provisions after the backlash that North Carolina legislators are facing from businesses after passing HB 2.

Republicans on a U.S. House of Representatives committee are using the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill to undo President Obama’s LGBTQ anti-discrimination measures for federal contractors.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) offered an amendment to roll back the protections after midnight last Thursday during a marathon markup session of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (HR 4909). The amendment would hold federal contractors accountable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

However, the protections and exemptions under these federal laws do not apply to LGBTQ people, effectively undoing Obama’s 2014 executive order to prohibit federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Obama did not bow to pressure from religious leaders to include broad religious exemptions.

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Russell’s one-paragraph amendment would apply to any “religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society” that receives or offers a federal contract, subcontract, grant, purchase order, or cooperative agreement. Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee said the language could extend to private contractors.

“The way this amendment is written, it doesn’t matter if you’re a religious organization,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member.

Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) called the attempt “misguided.”

“The ambiguity of this exemption is dangerous with this broad definition of religious organization,” he said during the markup session. “I urge my colleagues, all of them, to vote against this dangerous amendment and in so doing, stand on the side of equality and against discrimination.”

Russell received a waiver from both the GOP-controlled Oversight and Government Reform and the Judiciary committees to proceed with the amendment, his office confirmed. Waivers are needed for amendments that are not germane to an underlying bill. As written, the amendment would apply to all government contractors, not just those in the defense sphere.

“If signed into law as part of the NDAA, many federally funded institutions could refuse to hire, or even outright fire, individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Under the Russell amendment, for example, a transgender custodian at a major hospital receiving federal funding could be fired merely due to their gender identity,” wrote Sarah McBride, campaigns and communications manager for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, along with Aaron Ridings, the project’s associate director. “Similarly, some major institutions could refuse to grant health insurance to the legally married spouse of a gay or lesbian employee.”

The amendment passed 33-29 in a party-line vote. Two Republicans, Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Joseph Heck (R-NV), voted against it. Rep. Thomas MacArthur (R-NJ) did not cast a vote.

As part of a package of amendments on military personnel, the committee unanimously agreed to Rep. Jackie Speier’s (D-CA) proposal to allow transgender veterans to change their names on their discharge documents. Republicans blocked Speier’s attempt to lift a ban prohibiting military facilities from providing on-site abortion care.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle routinely offer substantive policy changes to the defense bill because it is considered must-pass legislation—and a vehicle to advance their priorities to a vote in a sharply divided House. Russell used the process to allow federal contractors to discriminate against their workers, Speier’s office told Rewire in an interview.

Russell’s amendment is not unprecedented. The defense bill has long attracted discriminatory measures, said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, president of Q Street, the professional association of LGBTQ lobbyists and public policy advocates and those working for LGBTQ equality.

“I don’t think this is new in any way,” Erickson Hatalsky said. “What I do think is new is context around it.”

Erickson Hatalsky pointed to widespread business opposition to anti-LGBTQ measures and a political landscape that now puts Republicans, not moderate Democrats, in a bind for supporting such policies.

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said Russell’s amendment marked a departure from more recent standard operating procedure on the defense bill. In this Congress, the House has had the “good sense” to refrain from targeting the civil rights of LGBTQ people, even as measures accumulate at the state and local levels, Tobin said in an interview.

“The Russell amendment passing committee is a new development in that sense,” she said. “It’s very disappointing to see something like this, that while its language is very vague, it’s clearly aimed directly at promoting discrimination against our community.”

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, told Rewire that it’s “frankly shocking” lawmakers would consider these types of provisions after the backlash that North Carolina legislators have faced from businesses after passing HB 2. Business leaders have also opposed Mississippi’s anti-LGTBQ measure, known as HB 1523.

“Businesses like PayPal and Deutsche Bank have pulled out of expansion plans and corporations like Apple, IBM, Citibank, and Starbucks have all voiced opposition to such laws,” Kemnitz said. “Nevertheless, we are confident that President Obama, given his vocal support of the LGBT community and disapproval of laws such as HB 2, would veto any type of legislation that includes these types of amendments.”

Before a final defense bill reaches the president’s desk, a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers would have to meet and reconcile the differences between their versions. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup is scheduled for May 11.

Speier will likely serve on the conference committee and will fight for what she wants—and doesn’t want—to keep in the legislation, according to her office.