News Human Rights

Colorado Lawmakers Withdraw Reproductive Health Freedom Act

Jason Salzman

Under pressure from Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Democrats have withdrawn legislation in Colorado that would have proactively stopped government entities from blocking women's reproductive health decisions.

Colorado lawmakers withdrew a bill Wednesday that would have barred state and local governments from interfering with reproductive health decisions.

SB 175, known as the Reproductive Health Freedom Act, faced significant opposition from social conservatives, including Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who was the featured speaker at a rally against the measure the day before it was killed.

Aquila helped drum up opposition to the bill and attendance at the rally, which drew hundreds of people, by penning a Holy Week open letter to “Coloradans of good will” stating that the measure “enshrines the culture of death into law and ignores science.”

Aquila, who recently said Satan “is real,” is not known for speaking out in defense of science but, instead, for encouraging people of faith to become active in politics. He said on Denver radio station KNUS Monday, for example, that “you can’t leave your faith in a church.”

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State Rep. Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood), one of the bill’s sponsors, told the Denver Post that he feared a contentious battle over the bill during the final three weeks of the legislative session.

“Delay and filibustering tactics were going to become the absolute rule of the day here over the next three weeks over SB 175,” Kerr told the Post in explaining why the bill was withdrawn.

Democrats hold a one-seat majority in the Colorado Senate, which was scheduled to consider the bill after it cleared a committee April 10 on a party-line vote. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is pro-choice, was expected to sign the legislation.

“We view this as a temporary interruption,” Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, told Rewire in an email. “We intend to continue our pro-active effort to protect the rights of all Coloradans to make private medical decisions, free from government interference. We’re not content to play defense any more. … Protecting privacy is a bedrock Colorado value.”

Sixty-two percent of Colorado voters surveyed in a 2013 Project New America poll “agree that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion based on her personal values and her doctor’s advice.” And in 2008 and 2010, over 70 percent of Coloradans rejected “personhood” amendments, which would have banned abortion in the state.

The proactive intent of the legislation was of particular concern to opponents like Aquila, who wrote in his open letter:

It prevents common-sense regulations like waiting periods, restrictions on abortion pills (particularly for minors), and parental notification policies. Advocates of this bill seek the absolute “right to abortion” for girls as young as 10 or 11 without a parent’s knowledge, guidance or advice. Parents are seen as unfit in the moral guidance of their children.

Among the other opponents was Colorado Attorney General John Suthers.

“It appears this is a bill intended to rally the (Democratic) base in advance of November’s election,” Suthers, a Republican, told the National Catholic Reporter. “Abortion law is already pretty clear. All unsettled issues regarding abortion are on the perimeter, meaning issues like parental notification. This law would just inflame things.”

Bill proponents repeatedly argued that their legislation was distorted.

“We’d like to thank our bill sponsors, Sen. Kerr and Sen. Nicholson, for advocating for the rights of Colorado women to make their own private, personal medical decisions without government interference,” said Middleton in a statement. “We’re disappointed that a bill that protected the privacy rights of Coloradans and reflected the will of Colorado voters was so distorted and politicized by the opponents. We believe mainstream Colorado values can and should be reflected in our laws, which is what SB 175 did.”

Anti-choice Denver talk-radio host Dan Caplis said Monday, “This is a wake-up call for what I call the sleeping majority in Colorado, who think they can’t win anymore.”

Voters in Colorado have twice overwhelmingly defeated “personhood” amendments, and the Colorado legislature is controlled by pro-choice Democrats who have soundly defeated bills infringing on a women’s right to choose.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”