Speaking of Women's Rights: 02/11

Monday, February 28, 2011

Making Families Count in Idaho

A guest post by Dina Flores-Brewer

Recently, the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare released their most recent numbers on Idaho's marriages and divorces; live births and abortions; and suicides among men and women What do the numbers say? Marriages are down, divorces are up. Live births are down, abortions are up. Suicides among both men and women are way up. The study gives us data about the state of our health and welfare that, on the surface, points to a decreased quality of family life for many Idahoans. It begs the question, what's happening to Idahoan families? What does it take to keep our families intact and secure?

These numbers are deceptively simple and do not paint a whole picture of what it takes to keep a family whole and strong. Most importantly, these numbers only look at a few of the outcomes of individuals in our state. In reality, between marriages and divorces, abortions and suicides, families are struggling to keep it together. They are raising children with dwindling resources; sending them to schools with shrinking budgets (note the proposed legislation to cut funding for Kindergarten education for all but a few children statewide); trying not to be bankrupted by medical and healthcare bills; and keeping a roof over their heads in a state that's now ranked at the bottom for home values and climbing foreclosure rates. Families are being bombarded by forces beyond their control. The State of Idaho has constructed a network of resources using public funding to create safety nets – public schools, public healthcare, and public safety agencies—and these resources are being yanked out from underneath vulnerable families at a time when there is nothing to replace them.

Many Idaho families feel profoundly alone and isolated. People in our community have been told by their elected officials, most recently by Governor Otter, that they will simply have to do more with less, need to tighten their already suffocating belts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. These words are tragically hollow in an economy where few are wearing shoes any more.

So I am not surprised by the increases in suicide rates. It speaks to a heightened sense of isolation and desperation that is frighteningly too common these days. And state services are simply not able to keep up. Since 2008, Idaho’s mental health services have been cut by nearly 25%. The Department of Health and Welfare has cut or left unfilled 35 full-time positions to assist adults with mental health problems, and 14 positions to help Idaho youth. Last year, many adults with disabilities lost cash assistance, and many more were told to pay several hundred dollars per month in cost sharing or risk losing their Medicaid eligibility. Several Health and Welfare offices were permanently closed in rural communities, decreasing access to needed services and assistance. This fiscal year, Health and Welfare is again being told to find another $35-50 million in cuts in programs that have already been cut beyond the bone. So far, the Legislature and Governor Otter have adamantly refused to try to locate additional revenue.

Perhaps less attention will be paid to the statistics about birth in our state. What does it mean when abortion rates increase and the rates of live births decrease in our state? While conservatives will likely point to this data as yet another reason to try to restrict abortion access in our state, these numbers ought to make all of us, regardless of political affiliation or personal belief, ask what can we do about it? I cannot presume to know what is going on in these women's lives, but these numbers say a lot about the belief of women in our state on the ability to raise a family -- about their individual readiness and our community readiness to support families.

I do know one thing. This data tells us about maternity and morbidity, but it doesn’t tell us about the many ways that women across the state are working to change our lives and to protect our families. Our organization, the Women of Color Alliance, has mobilized our leaders and members to be a part of the decision making process in Boise this year and make our voices heard. We are going to show up, stand up and speak out against the budget cuts that have deflated the public infrastructure that vulnerable Idaho families rely on. We also plan to help mitigate the unforeseen consequences of the healthcare refusals law that was passed in last year's legislature. And finally, WOCA is supporting the ACLU’s efforts to ban shackling for pregnant women incarcerated in Idaho because every woman deserves dignity, safety and respect as they anticipate motherhood.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has given us all some alarming data to ponder. WOCA and our allies will be doing our part to help keep our families strong—but what will our elected officials do?

This post appeared originally on the Western States Center Blog.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Behind the Battle Lines of the "War On Women"

As the “war on women” escalates in Congress, I’ve been pondering its underpinnings. Many would probably say it’s merely an aspect of the famous (and real) vast right-wing conspiracy, but that strikes me as too facile an analysis.

To be sure, it’s tempting to see the so-called war everywhere, whether in the enormous gap between women and men in obtaining jobs as we slog toward economic recovery, or in the preference of parents in the United Kingdom to have their sons, rather than their daughters, move back home. Both those findings reflect deep-seated stereotypes about women, I fear (though I’d like to see more data about the jobs gap, given that men disproportionately lost their jobs, at least early in the recession). Yet that sort of stereotype is different from the world view that leads members of Congress to single out women’s health care and related programs and services for massive cuts.

Jon Stewart probably said it best, when he noted that House Republicans have decided that instead of cutting services to “people” they are cutting them to “women,” bringing to mind the famous saying that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. Except apparently we aren’t real people, at least to those politicians and their supporters.

How can it be acceptable for Congress to slash money for basic food aid to women and their children; to prefer that women die, rather than be able to obtain a safe, legal medical procedure, even in the face of an impassioned and eloquent speech from one of their own colleagues; for Planned Parenthood – which has provided needed, safe health care to millions of women – to have its funding taken away, making it impossible for millions more to get that care?

This is actually not a political war. Rather, it’s a holy war: an effort by religious extremists against liberty and progress, a rear-guard action aimed at establishing (or in their view, returning to) a society in which women are entirely subservient to men. Certainly the politicians voting for these heinous measures are gung-ho soldiers in this war, and many hold the same beliefs as the overtly religiously-motivated extremists. But we can’t simply dismiss these actions by saying "they hate women." It’s not just about animus: it’s about control, about making sure that women stay in their assigned role, and do not/cannot usurp men’s authority and power.

That’s why I say it’s a war on liberty and progress. It’s the same motivation that underlies opposition to marriage equality. Yes, they find homosexuality opprobrious. But what they find more offensive is the notion of equality among all people. Women’s – and men’s – liberty to be the persons they want to be, without being constrained by that religiously extreme world view, is what’s at stake in this holy war.

The holy war presents more than one risk, of course. Yes, if they were to win and impose that medieval (or even more archaic) societal structure, that would be very, very bad for all of us. But in addition, the world view underlying this effort harms other religious persons and institutions, both by claiming to be “the only holy truth” and by making religion appear hateful and reactionary. That’s a disservice to many people of faith, yet it’s almost inevitable to some degree. As someone brought up with mainstream Protestant dogma, I find watching the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers” turn into political reality not only disheartening, but terrifying.

Worst of all, at least to me, is the unrelenting assault on our Constitution and on the founding of this country. We don’t just have freedom of religion and separation of church and state: we’re supposed to have freedom from religion. That’s as holy an ideal as any, preserving as it does both the independence of organized religion, and our sacred liberties.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Elections and Consequences

By David Ward

It’s a political truism that elections have consequences. I’ve been thinking about that old piece of wisdom while watching budget debates unfold across the country over the last week.

Let’s start in Washington state. Despite Washington’s generally progressive bent, the state somehow has the most regressive tax system in the country. In 2010, voters had the chance to change that by adopting a state income tax on high earners to fund health and education services. But the measure failed by a wide margin. For good measure, the voters also repealed a two-cent sales tax on soda, candy, and bottled water. And on top of that, voters passed a measure to require a two-thirds legislative supermajority on any legislation to increase taxes.

We’re seeing the consequences of those decisions right now in Olympia. Due to the continuing effects of the recession, Washington is facing a projected budget shortfall of nearly $5 billion for the 2011-13 biennium, which starts on July 1st. Even more immediately, the Legislature has to find hundreds of millions of dollars to close the budget gap for the remainder of the 2009-2011 biennium. Keep in mind, the Legislature already had to make a series of major cuts to balance the budget in the past two years. The bottom line: We are looking at devastating cuts to a state budget that has already been cut to the bone.

What’s at risk? The Basic Health Plan, which provides coverage for working families. Maternity support services to help ensure positive outcomes for at-risk mothers. The Disability Lifeline program, which provides income and medical assistance for individuals who cannot work due to a disability. Services for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. Class size reductions for public schools. And the list goes on and on. But on the bright side, at least we won’t have to pay two cents more for a soda or a candy bar.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives spent the past week debating a budget measure that all but declares war on women. The newly-elected leadership in the House of Representatives has vowed to cut $100 billion from the federal budget, and programs serving women and their families are prime targets.

The latest outrage: The House just voted by a 240-185 margin for a budget amendment to cut all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. This amendment is part of a supplemental budget bill that would eliminate every cent of federal funding for family planning services under the Title X program.

Title X provides comprehensive family planning and other preventive health care services to 5 million low-income women each year. Never mind that studies have consistently shown that every dollar spent on the Title X program results in $4 in savings, and no federal funds appropriated for the program are used to provide abortion services. The House leadership is simply making a bald-faced attempt to punish Planned Parenthood for providing women with access to the full range of reproductive health services.

And moving to the heartland, Wisconsin’s newly-elected Governor Scott Walker has proposed ending collective bargaining rights for nearly all state and local government employees as part of his budget proposal. Although the Governor claims the proposal would save money, it would have no direct impact on the state’s finances. As the New York Times noted, this is simply an attempt by the Governor to use the state’s budget crisis as a pretext to push through an ideological, anti-worker policy.

So it wasn’t a great week for women and their families. But what has inspired me is how the people in Wisconsin have responded to Governor Walker’s attack on working families. They aren’t just grumbling at the television, or posting distressed messages on Facebook. By the thousands, they are taking to the streets, swarming the state Capitol, and making the entire country sit up and take notice.

We can learn a lesson from Wisconsin. The 2010 elections are over, but we don’t have to live with the consequences. We can get out of our chairs and make our voices heard. If you are in Washington, you can do just that by joining us on March 17 at the State Capitol for a rally to protect our economic future.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I could dream before I was born...

But the moment I was born, I stopped. It’s kind of hard to dream when you don’t have enough to eat. Apparently my mom is supposed to “pull herself up by her bootstraps,” and find a way to provide for me, but she’s dead broke because she can’t get childcare subsidy and without childcare she can’t hold down a job.

And nothing kills dreams quite like being sick and not getting the care you need. My mother can’t afford health insurance for me and so we have to make do the best we can. You would assume that a state like Washington would be willing to help out a kid with no health insurance. As commentator Michelle Malkin put it (while telling 11-year-old Marcelas Owens why it was his mother’s fault that she died without insurance) “Washington State offers a plethora of existing government assistance programs to laid-off and unemployed workers like Marcelas' mom.” Unfortunately these programs are being whittled away by budget crises. I guess preventative care is for those who are better off than we are. Mom doesn’t have health insurance either. She worries about what would happen to me if she were to get sick and not be able to take care of me. I worry about that too.

You know what the funny thing is? It’s some of the same people who want so badly for me to be born that think my mother and I don’t deserve to have health care. Like John McCain, for instance, who once said “As a leader of a pro-life party with a pro-life position, I will persuade young Americans [to] understand the importance of the preservation of the rights of the unborn. “ A few years later he voted against the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization and Expansion Act. In fact, every single no vote for the bill came from a member of his supposedly “pro-life” party. Makes a person wonder what the term “pro-life” really means.

Then there’s the fact that John Boehner, current Republican Speaker of the House, has listed the “No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act,” as his top priority. The bill would restrict funding for abortions to an unprecedented degree and bar a woman from using her own money to pay for insurance with comprehensive reproductive health care. Yet, he also voted against the expansion of CHIP in 2009, not to mention that his infamous Repeal of the “job-killing” health care act would harm children in many ways.

17,000 kids have died in the U.S. due to a lack of health insurance in the last two decades. 10 million die world-wide from lack of care each year . 17 million American children didn’t have enough food to eat this year.  

Where are the billboards about that?
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone cared a whole bunch about me – and other children like me– for more than just nine months?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reasonable Fear

Several months ago, Georgia Gunzer filed a petition in Pierce County Superior Court in Washington for a domestic violence protection order. She wanted the order to protect herself from Alphonso Bell, the father of her 10-year old daughter.

In her petition, Ms. Gunzer described how Mr. Bell had physically abused her, made threatening remarks, and violated protection orders that she had obtained before. She said she was worried because Mr. Bell would be getting out of prison in three weeks, and asked for an order “to last as long as it can, due to his violent past.”

On October 22nd, the court denied Ms. Gunzer’s request for a protection order. The court said that there were “real concerns about credibility here in terms of your fear of Mr. Bell.” The reason? Ms. Gunzer had visited Mr. Bell several times while he was in prison.

On January 22nd – three months to the day after she was denied a protection order – Ms. Gunzer was stabbed to death in her home. Alphonso Bell has been charged with her murder.

This tragedy reflects an all too common problem: Domestic violence victims aren’t believed when they express fear of their abusers. If the victim is still in contact with the abuser, the conventional wisdom goes, how can she still be afraid of him? Or if the abuse took place years ago, why is she still afraid?

The reality is much more complicated. Domestic violence is about power and control, and survivors of domestic violence face considerable barriers in breaking free of their abusers. In Ms. Gunzer’s case, she had to be in contact with Mr. Bell to get a parenting plan for their daughter. And the fact that she visited her abuser while he was safely behind bars hardly meant that she wouldn’t be afraid of him after he was released.

We also know that abusers are often emboldened to increase their violence after a protection order is denied. Victims are left feeling they have no choice but to deal with their abuser as best they can, since they were not believed before. Ms. Gunzer told her friends that she felt she “had to be nice” to Mr. Bell after the protection order was denied.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Gunzer this past week. With our allies at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Legal Voice has been working in the Washington State Legislature to pass a bill (House Bill 1565) to help domestic violence survivors keep long-term protection orders against their abusers. The bill would address a recent Washington Supreme Court decision in which the court held that a domestic violence survivor can lose a permanent protection order against her abuser unless she shows a current “reasonable fear” of her abuser.

In the case before the state Supreme Court, a woman had obtained a permanent protection order against her husband in 1998. Among other things, she presented evidence that he had threatened her with guns and knocked her teenage daughter unconscious. Years later, the husband asked to have the order lifted because it affected his ability to get a security clearance for work – not because he had done anything to change his behavior. The woman and her daughter strongly opposed lifting the order because they were still in fear of him. But the Court found that the order had to be terminated because their fear was supposedly no longer “reasonable.”

House Bill 1565 would change the law so that victims of domestic violence no longer need to prove that their fear is still “reasonable” to keep a permanent protection order. Instead, the abuser would have to prove that his behavior has changed so that he no longer poses a threat.

You can help. If you live in Washington, please contact your state representatives and urge them to pass House Bill 1565. Tell them that victims of domestic violence need to be able to rely on long-term protection from their abusers. Tell them that the question needs to be “Has the abuser changed?” – not “Why is she still afraid?”

Photo Credit: Zac Doob