Commentary Abortion

Beyond ‘Choice’: Youth-Focused Reproductive Rights and Justice Organization Renames Itself URGE

Erin Matson

What does it mean to be pro-choice? For an increasing number of activists, advocates, and advocacy organizations, it includes wanting to be identified with an agenda more comprehensive than supporting a woman's right to choose abortion—as in, dropping the "choice" label entirely.

What does it mean to be pro-choice? For an increasing number of activists, advocates, and advocacy organizations, it includes wanting to be identified with an agenda more comprehensive than supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion—as in, dropping the “choice” label entirely.

The latest to make a change is Choice USA, a youth-focused reproductive rights and justice organization that today announced it has changed its name to URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. “For years we have been hearing from our membership that our name and our brand were not capturing the cutting-edge work that they were doing on campus,” URGE Executive Director Kierra Johnson wrote in an email to Rewire. “The name didn’t limit the work we did, but it did limit who we attracted to the organization.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve been around this block. Planned Parenthood announced in 2013 that it would stop using “pro-choice” after commissioning research that showed nearly a quarter of voters don’t identify with either the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” label and that 40 percent say their personal view on abortion “depends on the situation.” In conjunction, it launched a “Not In Her Shoes” campaign that emphasized empathizing with women’s specific situations and leaving decisions to the individual. Around the same time, the National Women’s Law Center launched a “This is Personal” campaign targeting young women with messages that “reproductive health decisions are personal.”

These language conversations are not a distraction. Language is not just about words, but also tactics and strategy, and it’s an important time to assess all of them. After all, abortion rights and family planning are losing huge. As laid out by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo, we can expect radical new consequences stemming from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision granting a private business the right to assert religious beliefs that trump generally applicable laws. At the state level, legislatures continue working diligently to make abortion more difficult to obtain.

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But restrictions upon abortion and family planning are part of and must be considered within a much broader picture. Last year, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for the Department of Justice to tackle an epidemic of voter suppression laws in states dominated by conservative legislatures, which disproportionately affect young people, people of color, and women. Pew Research reported in January that income inequality, by one measure, hasn’t been this high since 1928. This is not race and gender neutral: During the past 25 allegedly enlightened years, the wealth gap has nearly tripled between white families and African-American families. This spring Senate Republicans again blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, a piece of legislation designed to address the gender wage gap. Violence against women is the global norm. In a shameful display of inhumanity earlier this month, protesters in California blocked and heckled three buses containing migrants who entered the country without documentation. President Obama is under pressure to water down a soon-expected executive order against LGBT employment discrimination for federal contractors with gaping, Hobby Lobby-style religious exemptions.

We could, and should, continue at length, but the point is this: “Choice” does not happen in a vacuum. Deeply entrenched and tangibly experienced discriminations on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as less acknowledged but very present discriminations in areas including ability and gender identity, mean that not everyone has a “choice” to control whether and when to parent. Abortion funding restrictions deprive many women, especially low-income women, young women, and women of color, of the practical means to choose an abortion. What’s more, ending reproductive oppression is much larger than expanding access to abortion and family planning. It must include all of these things as well as support for parenting, adoption, breastfeeding, pregnancy, sexual health, and tackling those interlocking oppressions staining the human experience.

What I am saying is not new, nor was it developed by me. An explicitly reproductive justice-oriented framework was developed by women of color leaders such as SisterSong co-founder Loretta Ross with the intent of addressing lived experiences and needs not adequately addressed by an emphasis on “choice.” As explained in a piece on Rewire authored by Ross, Marlene G. Fried, Rickie Solinger, Toni M. Bond Leonard, and Jessica Danforth, “Locating women’s autonomy and self-determination in human rights rather than individual rights and privacy gives a more inclusive and realistic account of both autonomy and what is required to ensure that all women have it.”

Women are not the same or even fundamentally similar, and it’s a dead end to advocate for them as if they were. In the specific instance of confronting an unplanned or otherwise unsustainable pregnancy, a woman with white privilege, a credit card, and a New York City area code does not have the same options as a woman of color living in the South without the same access to financial and other resources. “Choice” does not mean the same thing for all women. It’s not just about ending a pregnancy: It’s also about continuing a pregnancy. For many women, a reproductive justice movement answers the need for a comprehensive focus that values improving a person’s ability to raise healthy children in safe communities as equally important to improving access to abortion, family planning, and health care more broadly.

While respecting the importance of acknowledging the individual circumstances faced by women in light of the interlocking oppressions they may or may not experience is critical, a reproductive justice approach is not the same as dropping the word choice and placing emphasis on the personal, as done by Planned Parenthood. Reproductive justice is not a plea for empathy for what individual women may be going through, but rather an approach that involves acknowledging and dismantling exclusions, hierarchies, and stigmas that perpetuate discrimination and inequitable outcomes for people, their families, and their communities. In other words, reproductive justice is radical.

In her email to Rewire, Johnson made it clear that the new name URGE fits within the broader reproductive justice work the organization had already been pursuing on campus:

While abortion rights are an interest to many young, self-identified progressives, it is not the number one reason that they are seeking an organizing home. They want to be part of a community that values their experience and contribution. They want to talk about strategies to bring down the barriers they experience and are experienced by their families and communities. They want to create a unique vision and have access to the skills, resources and connections to begin experimenting with putting it into place.

I also noticed that while the word “choice” is disappearing from the organization’s name, “gender” is being inserted (as the “G” in URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity). Using the term gender instead of women is in keeping with an ongoing strategy that encourages men to step up in the struggle, an important and worthy goal. Last year, URGE began a “bro-choice” campaign designed to, as Johnson told Rewire in a previous Q&A, “substantively and authentically [incorporate] men of color, low-income men, young men, gay men, transgender men, and, yes, straight white men” in the organization’s work toward gender justice.

But it also sends an important signal: that transgender people are welcome. A long-held controversy within the women’s movement over the inclusion of transgender people continues today, with Twitter serving as one important forum for that discussion. In her piece for The Nation on “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” Michelle Goldberg presented Twitter-based advocacy for renaming a pro-choice fundraiser titled “A Night of a Thousand Vaginas” to exclude biology-specific language so that transgender people would be encouraged to feel more explicitly included as “revolution-eats-its-own-irony,” or in other words, toxicity. But it wasn’t funny, or toxic. It was a conversation that we as advocates need to keep having with open hearts and thoughtful ears. This is but one of many examples of how far the broader reproductive rights, health, and justice movement has to go with transgender inclusion.

In her email to Rewire, Johnson also offered an interesting, sex-positive reflection on the incorporation of “gender” into her organization’s name:

Gender and sexuality (and our assumptions, expectations, fears, and aspirations of them) are at the core of the fight for sexual health, reproductive rights and gender equity. But as a general rule, our movement doesn’t talk about gender unless we mean women and we don’t talk about sex unless we are referring to how to prevent the unwanted consequences of it. Our hope is that URGE will continue to evolve into a place where we can talk about both and discuss how our experience and understanding of gender and sexuality is political and impacts policy change. Our goal is to share a vision of a world that celebrates human sexuality while we also work to understand misogyny and sexism as root causes that negatively impact us all.

Is this a renunciation of choice? No, but it is movement in a very promising direction.

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.