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Clarifying the Mexico City Policy

January 23, 2009, 4:05 pm | By Kristin Ford

Today, the media’s been abuzz with the not-so-surprising news that President Obama is set to overturn the Mexico City Policy, which prevents U.S. funding from going to international NGOs that endorse or provide abortions. Some of the reporting has been a bit murky.

Exhibit A:

Reuters story ran under the headline “Obama to lift funding ban for abortion groups abroad.” The article goes on to say, “President Barack Obama on Friday will lift restrictions on U.S. government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad, reversing a policy of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.”

Exhibit B:

Politico: “It’s known as the Mexico City Policy, or global gag rule, which bans federally funded non-government organizations from performing abortions in foreign countries.”

Exhibit C:

Associated Press: The policy bans U.S. taxpayer money, usually in the form of U.S. Agency for International Development funds, from going to international family planning groups that either offer abortions or provide information, counseling or referrals about abortion. It is also known as the “global gag rule,” because it prohibits taxpayer funding for groups that even talk about abortion if there is an unplanned pregnancy.

Exhibit D:

BBC: President Barack Obama is set to lift a ban on US funding for groups that provide abortion services abroad, officials say.

What’s implicitly being said– that the overturning of the “global gag rule” will allow U.S. dollars to pay for abortions– is simply not the case. Regardless of the status of the Mexico City Policy, we have a law on our books (the Helms amendment) that prevents federal money from going to abortion procedures. Revoking the Mexico City Policy will allow for the funding of organizations that provide family planning services, abortion referrals and counselings, and yes, abortions. BUT, that money cannot directly go towards abortions.

In addition to the media’s incomplete context, some in the pro-life community aren’t getting it right either. For instance, a FOX story quotes Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, saying, “President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control.”

In the same vein, a Focus on the Family representative told the BBC: “…you cannot reduce abortions by channelling more money to the abortion industry.”

To the contrary– robust family planning and access to contraception will drive down demand for abortions. One of the key planks of the Real Abortion Solutions initiative is the prevention of unintended pregnancies. The global gag rule has prevented women from getting the health care they need, including contraception and family planning services.

As David Gibson at Beliefnet wrote today, “[the Mexico City Policy] has cut off a lifeline to untold numbers of health clinics that are the sole outlet for millions of poor people–and has resulted in terrible sufferings for women and children, increased numbers of pregnancies, and a greater number of abortions.”

Women around the globe deserve the chance at a healthy, safe life. Without NGO-operated and funded clinics– which often rely on American funding– many won’t get that care. Let’s make sure we have all the facts when we talk about policy that affects whether they receive it.

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Church and state tension broiling in Virginia… why it’s interesting, and why it isn’t so relevant

January 8, 2009, 3:48 pm | By Kristin Ford

In my home state… err, commonwealth…, there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over police prayers lately.

So far as I understand it, police chaplains used to publicly pray however they wanted, but a recent change, stemming from a federal appeals court ruling, asks the chaplains to offer non-sectarian prayers at department-sanctioned public events such as trooper graduations and annual memorial services. Then some real drama started when six troopers who also act as chaplains resigned their religious duties in protest.

The Family Foundation has taken up the cause, and is lobbying the Virginia legislature to restore the right to trooper-led, public, sectarian prayer. Family Foundation president Victoria Cobb says, “A prayer at public events shouldn’t be banned or censored just because a Christian or religious person delivers it.”

One major flaw with her reasoning: the guideline doesn’t ban Christians or other people of faith from delivering public prayers. All the guidelines stipulate is that the prayer has to be non-sectarian. You can be sectarian and still give a non-sectarian prayer. Do the whole prayer you’d normally do, and then end with a simple “Amen,” rather than a “In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.” I kid you not.

(Which brings up a whole other question–is a non-sectarian prayer really more innocuous than a sectarian one? A legal scholar, Thomas Delahunty, has argued that non-sectarian prayer is illusory. He claims that, “Every prayer, by its very nature, reflects and conveys a particular system of beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality, and is thus ‘sectarian.’”)

Also (and be forewarned: your FPL blogger took a terrific church and state class in college and loves this stuff), these troopers should probably be glad they’re still allowed to pray at all. In the context of high school graduations and football games, public prayers are no longer legally permitted, after the Supreme Court’s rulings in Lee vs. Weisman and Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. These cases both involve an adolescent, which is integral to the ruling, because the Court is wary of coercion and implicit endorsement of religious views by public entities like schools. The Court has upheld prayer in public contexts which only involve adults, who at least ostensibly are less subject to religious indoctrination or compulsion than are young adults. In Marsh v. Chambers, the Court upheld the use of public funds to pay chaplains’ salaries and allowed legislative prayer, because “In light of the history, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.”

As with pretty much all religion and public life questions, the legal footing here isn’t terribly steady. Some federal courts have banned public prayer, others have upheld it.

Moral of the story: rule on the Virginian books is no sectarian references in public prayers given by police chaplains, which is why the conservative group Family Foundation is in a tizzy.

As interested as I am in these legal vagaries, and the nuances of church and state rules, regulations, and findings, I have to wonder… aren’t there more important things the Family Foundation could be worrying about? Things that have more relevance to the everyday lives of Virginian families, especially in a time of economic distress? Many, especially rural, parts of Virginia have been suffering for a long time, and now, even suburban northern Virginia is being hit by rising unemployment rates.

Other faith groups in Virginia are actively responding to hard economic times: two faith groups, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the Virginia Catholic Conference are lobbying the government not to cut programs that serve the needy: Medicaid, housing assistance, aid for the disabled. These certainly seem like much more family-focused objectives to me. And it’s not like the Family Foundation is always on the wrong side of social and economic justice issues: they were a strong opponent of the expansion of payday lending in Virginia, rightly seeing that predatory lending practices are harmful to families. I think someone needs to remind them that families are at risk– from a crumbling economy, not from non-sectarian prayer.

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Contraception: A Matter of Conscience?

December 2, 2008, 3:15 pm | By Kristin Ford

Almost two months ago, I read an LA Times editorial— ““Family planning runs amok…” — on a proposed change to Health and Human Services rules. Proposed by the Bush administration, the regulations could allow health care workers to refuse to provide birth control or participate in artificial insemination. Today the LA Times writes that the Bush administration is, in fact, planning to announce a broader medical refusal rule.

Back in September, the LA Times editorial board called the rule change proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services a “sneak attack” And said it is not a matter of “religious freedom clashing with private liberties.” The proposed rule would require health care facilities to certify in writing that their workers do not have to assist with procedures they find morally objectionable. However, this rule isn’t about abortion or sterilization, since health care providers with objections to these practices are already covered under the Church Amendment, passed in 1973 just weeks after Roe v. Wade. The Times’ editorial board believes that

this provision is an attempt to roll back the clock on reproductive rights to the early 1960s, when doctors could be arrested for selling contraceptives even to married couples… [The proposed rule] gives no definition of abortion, leaving it up to the individual provider. It’s equally unclear what else might be morally objectionable. Providing HIV tests? Treating the children of same-sex couples? Giving a rape victim emergency contraception, or delivering life-prolonging treatments to seniors?

Should health care providers with religious objections to any form of contraception be granted an exemption from offering services or prescriptions to patients? How do we strike a balance between the rights of women (98% of women of reproductive age have used or are currently using some form of contraception) and the rights of those who oppose any form of contraception for religious reasons?

If you want my two cents, health care providers shouldn’t be allowed an exemption from prescribing birth control. It seems to me like just one more futile attempt to re-establish a traditional, orthodox, conservative governing structure on a society that is by all accounts less traditional, orthodox, and conservative than ever before. In a day and age of modernity–when 98% ! of women of reproductive age have used birth control–it seems like the dying gasp of extreme social conservatives.

Yes, abortion is a subject on which people of faith have genuine moral convictions (and disagreements). But this rule isn’t about abortion; it’s about contraception. And for those of us who think common ground on abortion is a real way forward, contraception is key. In addition to support for women and their children, accessible and affordable family planning can help prevent unwanted pregnancies. Preventing unintended pregnancies will help reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. About one half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and US rates of unintended pregnancies are among the highest in the developed world. With our contraceptive technology and an educated populace, there is no reason this number should be so high. And with “sneak attacks” like this, we won’t be able to truly pursue common ground approaches to reducing abortion in this country.

I do think religious freedom needs to be taken into account for abortion. (A hot topic right now with regards to Catholic hospitals and the Freedom of Choice Act.) But contraception and family planning can protect women and families, reduce the number of abortions, and virtually all women support it. We need to make sure that it is available.

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The people have spoken… Part II

November 7, 2008, 12:56 pm | By Kristin Ford

As promised, more ballot initiative analysis!

Despite some losses on Tuesday for progressive forces, there were definitely some wins as well. In addition to defeating antiabortion initiatives– which I blogged about last week– voters also defeated several anti-immigrant initiatives, including one in Oregon that would have mandated “English immersion” and limited the number of years immigrant students could have English as a Second Language classes. Ballot initiatives in several states also bolstered health care for children and seniors. Montana voters approved a measure which will establish the Healthy Montana Kids plan to expand and coordinate health coverage for uninsured children under the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Montana Medicaid Program, and employer-sponsored health insurance. Voters helped protect low-income Americans against predatory pay-day lenders in both Ohio and Arizona. In Michigan, voters approved an initiative that allows the donation of embryos produced in fertility clinics that would otherwise be discarded and allows researchers to create embryonic stem cell cultures to study disease, as well as permitting government funding of stem-cell research.

Initiatives on the environment, however, were a mixed bag.

California had two environmental initiatives on the ballot: “Big Wind” (a rebate program for those who buy alternative energy-fueled vehicles) and “Big Solar” (a requirement that utilities companies incrementally increase alternative-energy usage to meet 50% by 2025) failed. I was surprised by this, since California is known as being one of the most progressive states in the country and because their Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably the most outspoken “green” Republican. Schwarzenegger as governor has pledged to prevent off-shore drilling, signed into law legislation which requires cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, and issued an executive order mandating less carbon in transportation fuel.

And yet Californian voters turned down not one, but two, attempts to (at least ostensibly) make California more green.

I’m sure the economy is at least partially at work here. Rebate programs require money in government coffers; money which comes primarily from taxes. (According to opponents, this initiative would require $10 billion from government funds over thirty years.) Similarly, voters were probably nervous that if utility providers had to transition to alternative energy, their monthly energy bills would be higher. (Although, if you read the full text of the initiative, it stipulates that “utilities will be prohibited from passing along penalties to their electric rate-payers.”)

There were serious problems, even for environmentally-conscious citizens, with these propositions. (I gather this from what I’ve read on and in California newspapers, virtually NONE of which endorsed either initiative: the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego Union-Tribune , Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, and the list goes on).

Also, a clean energy initiative in Missouri was approved, though this has a lower standard for percentage of energy which is renewable.

But, still, I have to wonder… is our already-hurting environment going to suffer as a result of the economic crisis? Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has pointed out the pivotal question:

“Is this financial crisis going to be the end of green, or is green going to be how we end this financial crisis?”

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The people have spoken…

November 6, 2008, 4:29 pm | By Kristin Ford

Having grown up in the oh-so-old-fashioned commonwealth of Virginia, I’ve never seen a ballot initiative up close and personal. I’ve never signed a petition to get one on the ballot. Never voted for or against it. Never attended a rally protesting the results (as one of my friends in California did last night). My political junkie-ness has generally been confined to candidate races.

Needless to say, I find ballot initiatives oddly fascinating. There were a lot this election cycle– 153, in fact.

These initiatives ran the gamut–from “death with dignity”/right to die in Washington (which passed) to more humane treatment of farm animals in California (which appears to have passed).

The outcomes of these initiatives are interesting, especially in light of the “culture war” rhetoric Sarah Palin infused into the campaign. While McCain calls himself a federalist and believes marital law should be left to the states, Palin spoke out in favor of a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. (She also supported a 1998 ballot in Alaska to ban same-sex marriage. )

Bans of this type were on the ballot this week in three states: Florida, California, and Arizona. All passed.

On the other hand, three states had initiatives about reproductive rights, all of which went the more liberal direction. South Dakota defeated a stringent near-ban on abortion, California defeated a parental notification requirement, and a “personhood” amendment in Colorado was soundly turned down.

So, all three anti-gay rights measures passed and all three anti-abortion measures failed. In a time of economic anxiety and a growing desire to find common ground, it’s not surprising to me that these “wedge” issues didn’t entirely motivate voters the way social conservatives wanted. But it’s still interesting that in an election cycle where even white evangelicals– typically a socially conservative bunch– didn’t rank abortion or same-sex marriage as one of their top five concerns, same-sex marriage bans passed.

Also interesting is the role of young voters here. It’s still not clear to me whether youth turnout was as high as suggested/anticipated, but if it had been, I would’ve expected the inverse.

After all, young evangelicals are even more staunchly anti-abortion than their parents. The Colorado “personhood amendment” was actually drafted by a young, conservative evangelical Christian and endorsed by local stalwarts of the Religious Right– Focus on the Family.

On the other hand, young evangelicals are much more open and accepting of gays and lesbians. Over 50% of this group approve of either same-sex marriage or civil unions.

This election was certainly not animated by these hot-button issues as elections past have been, and for that I’m grateful. I think Americans have a lot more to talk about, to work together on, and to make progress on than abortion and gay marriage. But I’m still puzzled… any ideas?

P.S. Stay tuned for more ballot initiative analysis tomorrow!

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