Friday, May 6, 2016

Punishing Women for Abortion Hurts All Women

By Sara L. Ainsworth and Jill E. Adams
Members of the SIA Legal Team

Overzealous prosecutors, judges, lawmakers, and yes, even presidential candidates, have been threatening to undermine the abortion right by punishing women for having abortions. Let’s be honest, even when politicians say they don’t want to use the weight of the legal system to punish women for having abortions that isn’t the full story, because women are already being arrested and jailed for self-induced abortion and unintentional pregnancy loss.

The Self-Induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team, of which Legal Voice is a member, has spent the last year exploring the criminalization of abortion, and we have found at least 17 arrests or prosecutions involving self-induced abortion. Several of those arrests, especially the most recent, were of women accused of using medication—the drug misoprostol—to terminate their own pregnancies.

Sweeping in Those Who Experience Unintended Pregnancy Loss

Of course, for every person who gets caught up in the legal system for an intended pregnancy loss, there will be another ensnared for a pregnancy loss that was not intended.

As the Guttmacher Institute reports, “The mere existence of medication abortion is providing some legal authorities reason to conduct fishing expeditions to go after not only women who have clearly terminated a pregnancy, but also women whom they suspect have done so.”

This idea—that people who terminate their own pregnancies should be arrested and jailed—also affects people who suffer a pregnancy loss or a poor birth outcome. In a tragic example, Melissa McMillen, a young woman in Washington State, gave birth unattended at home to a baby who was either stillborn or died immediately. Hemorrhaging and alone, having hidden the pregnancy from family and friends, she put the baby’s body in towels and did not call for help. None of this is, or should be, a crime in Washington—and yet, Melissa was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to two decades in prison. One of the things the prosecutor argued at Melissa’s trial was that she had considered an abortion during the pregnancy. So, ambivalence about a pregnancy—something countless pregnant people experience—was used to argue that Melissa was a murderer.

Two members of the SIA Legal Team, Legal Voice and National Advocates for Pregnant Women, along with the ACLU of Washington and the Birth Rights Bar Association, filed an amicus brief in this case, explaining that decision-making during pregnancy is constitutionally protected, and that to prosecute someone for the outcome of an unattended birth endangers all pregnant people. After all, childbirth sometimes happens in taxis (and now Ubers), on planes, and when the pregnant person is alone.

Impacts of Criminalizing Self-Induced Abortion

If the justice system is allowed to criminalize self-induced abortion, unattended childbirth, and pregnancy loss, we know who it’s going to hurt most: people of color, people living in poverty, and immigrants. The majority of people prosecuted in relation to their own pregnancies are women of color, who are also more likely than their white counterparts to suffer poor birth outcomes. Between worse birth outcomes, heightened exposure to state agents, and racist or xenophobic stereotyping, it's no surprise that immigrants, people of color, and those struggling to make ends meet will be under the greatest scrutiny and suffer the deepest impacts of this trend in criminalization.

But, in truth, this targeting of women who self-induce their abortions harms everyone by nullifying the right to abortion entirely for growing numbers of pregnant people in the U.S. A Texas Policy Evaluation Project report concluded that as many as 100,000 women in Texas have already attempted to end their own pregnancies outside the formal healthcare system. For decades now, global data have demonstrated that highly restrictive laws do not reduce the abortion rate, they simply relocate the site of abortion care from the clinic to the home.

The Real Face of Self-Induced Abortion

In a nation where abortion is a protected constitutional right, and caring and courageous abortion providers continue to work in the face of unrelenting opposition, why do some people end their own pregnancies? There are hundreds of lived experiences that may push someone away from the formal health care system or that may pull them toward self-directed care. With abortion clinics closing, women are traveling farther and paying more for abortions and attendant costs, like travel, overnight accommodations, and childcare. All told, securing an abortion can cost some half a month’s pay, which is prohibitively expensive for many families.

Resourceful women and their loved ones have and will continue to find ways to end pregnancies outside the formal healthcare system. While the thought of home abortion may conjure up gruesome images of pre-Roe coat hanger abortions, the current reality is one of safer, less invasive means. More often than not, women use traditional herbs or misoprostol, which is far safer and more effective than many self-induced abortion methods of the past.

Safe home abortion will be a positive experience for some, occurring in a private place through effective means while accompanied by a loved one. For others, particularly people living in poverty, immigrants, and people of color who are disproportionately arrested for pregnancy-related crimes, the self-induced abortion experience may be shrouded by the fear of jail or deportation.

A woman who cannot afford an abortion or access an abortion clinic may turn to the Internet to research less expensive alternatives to clinic-based care. Rather than accurate information about how to procure reliable medications, proper dosage, and likely side effects, her search might turn up headlines about Purvi Patel, Jennie Linn McCormack, Kenlissia Jones, and other women arrested and jailed for allegedly ending their own pregnancies. What is this not-so-hypothetical woman to do? She’s decided—for whatever reason—that it’s better for her not to have a child. She doesn’t have insurance coverage for an abortion, doesn’t have money to pay the costs out of pocket, and doesn’t want to go to prison for taking matters into her own hands. That’s why we created the SIA Legal Team—to expand access to reliable information about ending one’s pregnancy, and to halt criminalization of women who do so.

The Future We Envision

No one should face prison time for the outcome of a pregnancy—intended or unintended. Rather than arrest and jail people who have self-induced their abortions, we should work to make abortion more affordable, more accessible, and less stigmatized. Pregnant people deserve access to the full panoply of provider-directed and self-directed abortion care options, along with the freedom to choose the setting and method right for them―without fear of going broke or getting locked up.


Sara L. Ainsworth is Advocacy Director at Legal Voice; Jill E. Adams is Executive Director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice and Chief Strategist for the SIA Legal Team, a consortium of organizations using law and policy tools to ensure people throughout the U.S. can end their own pregnancies outside of the formal health system with dignity and safe from the threat of arrest for themselves or anyone who assists them.

Photo courtesy of bekassine

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Real Reason Washington State Failed to Pass a Bill to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors

By Martha Burwell

Legal Voice has been fighting, and winning, some tough battles for women’s rights in the Washington State Legislature. But when this year’s legislative session ended in March, the very popular SB 6151 that would have improved protections for sexual assault survivors was left unpassed. This left bipartisan supporters saying, “Wait, what just happened?”

What happened was not at all what you would have expected. But let’s start at the beginning.

Currently in Washington State, if someone is a victim of a sexual assault, they can, understandably, get a protection order to help keep their attacker away from them. This is called a SAPO, or a Sexual Assault Protection Order, and it only applies in non-domestic violence cases. The problem is that SAPOs only last a short two years, unlike other types of protection orders.

When nearing the end of the second year, the survivor has two options. First, they can let the SAPO expire, giving them the extra stress of not having legal protection to keep the perpetrator away from them. Alternatively, they can go back to court, through an often re-traumatizing process, and renew the protection order. This includes filing paperwork, and taking time off during a weekday to go to court. It likely includes seeing the perpetrator in person, and hearing about their behavior over the past year or more. It includes reviewing, again, whether the survivor should be protected, which may include the details of the assault. And often, it includes the cost of a lawyer. It is an exhausting, unfair burden to bear. Unsurprisingly, survivors will often move away, find a new job, or leave school to get away from the perpetrator, rather than endure this process.

But even if they do choose to go through the work and stress of renewing the protection order, it is again only valid for two years. They would have to repeat this process over and over, every two years, if they wanted to continually be protected from the person who assaulted them. And each time, there is no guarantee that the extension will be granted.

SB 6151 was meant to lift this burden. Instead of having a two-year expiration date, it would allow courts to issue SAPOs for longer periods of time—even permanently—so the survivor would not have to keep going back to court on a two-year schedule. They could rest just a bit easier, and get on with their lives.

This bill passed unanimously in the Washington State Senate during the 2016 legislative session. At a time when the Legislature can be sharply divided on partisan lines and no party controls both houses, that is no small feat. When everyone agrees on something in a starkly divided political world, it is clearly a commonsense idea. Unanimous votes in this setting are a rare and precious thing.

The next step was for the House of Representatives to confirm the bill. It was expected to sail right through, given the popularity it had in the Senate.

But they did not pass the bill. So, what happened? What went wrong?

Enter the National Rifle Association.

After the Senate approved the bill, the NRA lobby began to protest that if someone had a SAPO against them with no expiration date, this would restrict their gun ownership for life. And this, they simply wouldn’t have.

But here’s where the problem lies—their claim was not true.

As the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs clearly states in their Sexual Assault Protection Order guide, “a SAPO cannot order the offender to surrender any guns or weapons.”  

It’s that simple. This bill had absolutely nothing to do with firearm ownership.

It is true that Washington law requires a court when entering any type of protection order must require a person to surrender firearms if there is clear and convincing evidence that the person used a firearm in committing a felony, or previously committed an offense making him or her ineligible to possess a firearm. 

But that is a separate issue from whether a survivor is entitled to a sexual assault protection order.  And frankly—should there be any question that a person should be required to surrender firearms in cases where they used a firearm to commit a felony, or are already prohibited by law from owning a gun?

In short, the NRA didn’t do their homework. It appears they were confusing this bill with the law passed in 2014 that put restrictions on gun ownership of those who have domestic violence protection orders—rather than sexual assault protection orders—issued against them (which also passed unanimously, it should be noted).

Surely, some Washington State Representatives must have been notified of this? Yes, they were. But when the NRA raised its voice, too many of our lawmakers got cold feet. Rather than standing up to and correcting the NRA, they stalled the bill to avoid the bullying of the long-standing firearms lobbyist organization.

All of this comes back to the sexual assault survivors, who we have let down. The NRA has ensured that, for now, they must still carry the burden of renewing the protection order every two years.

Legal Voice and their allies have publicly decried the Legislature’s failure to pass this bipartisan legislation, and have affirmed their commitment to see the bill through in the 2017 session. But what can we do about it? Email or call your Representatives, and let them know that you won’t stand for this kind of interference, and that when this bill comes around again in the next legislative session, you expect them to support it. This sounds like a small thing—sending an email or making a two-minute call—but it’s actually incredibly important. If many of us show our support, and give them a strong reason to vote in favor, we can help give them the courage to stand up to the NRA and support sexual assault survivors.


Martha Burwell is a gender equity consultant, researcher, and writer based in Seattle. You can see her explorations into intersectional feminist topics on her blog EqualiSea: The pulse on gender equity in Seattle and beyond, or say hello on twitter @EqualiSea.




Photo courtesy of Patricia Feaster | Licensed under CC by 2.0

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Never-Ending Nightmare:
Why We Must Ban Rapists from Seeking Parental Rights Over Children Conceived by Their Crime

By Martha Burwell

Your hands are sweating. Your heart is pounding. You pull your jacket closer around you, against the late winter breeze, as you focus on climbing the stairs, one at a time. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot.

Every atom in your body is screaming for you to turn and run, to get out of this place. But you can’t. You must keep going. Because in order to keep your child safe, you must finish walking up these stairs and go into the courtroom, where a judge will decide if the father of the child can have visitation, or even—you shudder at the thought—custody.

But this case is different from most custody battles. Because in this case, your child was conceived through rape. And the rapist is waiting for you in the courtroom. 

Unfortunately, with our current laws, dealing with the legal aftermath of rape can be extremely re-traumatizing for the victim. After the horrific violence of the act itself, there’s the rape kit, the police report, filing paperwork, going to court—all part of a lengthy, grating process of getting the rapist convicted, which happens only in 2% of rapes.

And what if the unthinkable happens—what if the woman gets pregnant? (Yes, women can and do get pregnant from rape, despite what dangerously misinformed male politicians may say).

Currently, if a woman keeps the child, which women decide to do in about 30% of pregnancies caused by rape, the rapist may petition for parental rights, depending on which state they're in. Yes, you read that right. The fact that the child is a result of rape is not grounds for denying paternity rights such as visitation, or even custody, if he can prove he is the biological father. This is true in many U.S. states.

And one of those states is Washington.

Surely, the mother can block the rapist from obtaining these parental rights, you’d think. Technically? Maybe. But it’s extremely difficult, and can only be done through an invasive and often expensive legal battle. And stringent conditions must be met, including the rapist being *convicted* of rape (remember how rare that is?). 

It’s clear to see how damaging this would be to both the child and the mother, having to deal with draining legal work, repeatedly discussing the rape, and seeing the rapist in court. And of course, 98% of cases wouldn’t even meet the requirement of having the perpetrator convicted of rape.

Additionally, with current laws, rapists can use the potential of custody or visitation as a legal bartering chip, pushing the mother to give away other rights in order to protect her child:

“When no law prohibits a rapist from exercising these [parental] rights, a woman may feel forced to bargain away her legal rights to a criminal trial in exchange for the rapist dropping the bid to have access to her child.” Not to mention that rapists may use the courtroom as a way to continue to harass their victims, emotionally and psychologically.

Some might argue that the woman doesn’t have to tell the rapist that she’s having his child. But unfortunately, most women are raped by someone they know. They may have been dating the rapist; they may share mutual friends or family. Also, “some of these men discover they are fathers only when the state targets them for child support, as single mothers must identify them to qualify for government assistance. This prompts some to file a lawsuit of their own.”

It’s obvious that this setup is far from ideal for rape victims. But what should we do about it?

Legal Voice has a solution.

In the 2014 session of the Washington State Legislature, Legal Voice advocated for two bills (​SB 6364 / HB 2559) that would have made it much more difficult for rapists to petition for parental rights. These bills mirrored similar laws passed in several other states—rather than requiring a conviction of rape for this legal barrier to take effect, the law would have required “clear and convincing evidence” that a rape had occurred. This is the same standard family courts use to decide whether a child has been abused or neglected. Since most rapes are not reported to the criminal justice system and those that are rarely result in conviction, this piece is key.

Not only would this bill prevent rapists from gaining parental rights over the child, but it also would prevent dragging rape survivors through traumatic and expensive court cases. While the bills did not pass the legislature in 2014, Legal Voice will revisit this issue for its 2017 legislative priorities.

When a woman has been raped, is unintentionally pregnant, and makes the extremely challenging decision to keep the unexpected child, the last thing she needs to worry about is going to court over the custody of that child.

Let’s make sure that she doesn’t have to.


Martha Burwell is a gender equity consultant, researcher, and writer based in Seattle. You can see her explorations into intersectional feminist topics on her blog EqualiSea: The pulse on gender equity in Seattle and beyond, or say hello on twitter @EqualiSea.




Photo courtesy of Donne Ray Jones | Licensed under CC by 2.0

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

This is NOT how to fight gender inequality.

By Janet Chung

Some people think that outlawing abortions for parents who don’t want a child of a particular gender would be a good way for Washington State to show it won’t stand for sex discrimination in any form. As one advocate put it, sex-selection abortion is equitable to women being “discriminated against in the womb.”

But that actually isn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong: Legal Voice condemns the practice of “son preference”—preferring sons to daughters—in all its forms. But an abortion ban like the one currently being considered by the Washington State Senate is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a solution to a problem that does not exist in this state—nor the rest of the United States—and perpetuates ugly stereotypes against Asian Americans.

The bill would charge physicians with criminal and civil liability and the possibility of losing their medical license. Threatening doctors and asking them to police their patients creates a disincentive to the honest, open communications between providers and patients that are essential to ensuring appropriate patient centered-care.

And the targets are women in a community that already faces barriers to health care, including language and cultural barriers, lack of insurance, and poverty. Washington has seen a 55% increase in its Asian American population since 2000. Asian American and Pacific Islander women need more access to safe, comprehensive reproductive health care—not less.

Proponents of sex-selection abortion bans say that they’re standing up for women and girls, but this is not the way to address gender inequality. As I told the Senate Law & Justice Committee yesterday, you can’t give women rights by taking away their rights. This bill will set a dangerous precedent and lead to even more restrictions on access to safe, legal reproductive care for all women.

Take action against this bill by urging the Senate Law & Justice Committee to vote "NO" on SB 6612!

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Wage Gap is a Myth!
Or is it?

By Janet Chung

We hear it all the time: “The wage gap is a myth!” Or, “We have all the laws we need to eliminate pay inequality.”

But even in jobs predominantly held by women—such as administrators, registered nurses, and teachers—men take home more pay every single week. So, despite what the critics say, the wage gap persists.


And many employers still punish workers for discussing their pay with co-workers, depriving them of the information that could help all workers make sure they are being paid fairly. Legal Voice, our allied organizations, and our legislative champions are not willing to accept that status quo, so we are advocating for an equal pay bill currently before the Washington Legislature.

We are excited that HB 1646 passed out of the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee last week, and it is now ready to be scheduled for a vote by the full House. But we need your help to ensure this important bill also receives a hearing in the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee.

Please urge Chair Michael Baumgartner and other members of the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee to schedule SB 6442 for a public hearing. Here's how:

• Call the legislative hotline at 800-562-6000 between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm Monday through Friday. Your message will be passed along to your Senator.

• Email Senator Baumgartner or the other members of the Committee. Use this link to email them all at once (sample message included). Having trouble? Copy and paste this list into the “To” field of your email, and use the sample message below:

Michael.Baumgartner@leg.wa.gov; John.Braun@leg.wa.gov; Bob.Hasegawa@leg.wa.gov; Steve.Conway@leg.wa.gov; Karen.Keiser@leg.wa.gov; Curtis.King@leg.wa.gov; Judy.Warnick@leg.wa.gov

Sample message: Please hear and pass SB 5630 before next week’s cutoff. Join me in standing up for Washington’s working women and families by updating our equal pay laws. We all deserve paycheck transparency and equal employment opportunities.

Together, we can make sure that someday, the wage gap really IS a myth. Thank you for your help and support!