Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unfriendly Skies

By Priya Walia

Trigger warning: violence, sexual assault, sexual assault of a child.

For people with a fear of flying, it is often reassuring to hear that planes are safer than cars. However, there are safety considerations other than crashing to consider. Travelers are exposed to an array of horrors at the hands of many different state and federal agencies—as well as other passengers—while flying.

The treatment of brown folks, like myself, and transgender people by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is atrocious, and I am sure that history will find it legally unsound. The lack of oversight for who is added to the terror watch list (also known as the no-fly list) is problematic at best and akin to government-mandated racial profiling at worst. Then there is the fear I experience at the hands of fellow passengers: Is someone going to report me for looking too suspicious? Too brown? Am I going to be seated next to a sexual predator?

That last concern may come as a bit of a surprise because, as many of us know, acquaintance sexual assault is far more common than the traditional archetype of the lurking stranger in an alleyway waiting to grab his unsuspecting victim. However, people are particularly vulnerable on planes because there is no way out. Add alcohol, jetlag, and sleeping medicine, and perpetrators of these heinous acts have the opportunity to strike with little to no detection.

In one reported incident, a reverend inappropriately touched a sleeping woman—touching that he considered “consensual because she did not reject his touches and he interpreted her silence, because she was asleep, as ‘coyness.’” The victim was not aware of the touching until she awoke with his hand on her thigh. He later admitted to FBI agents that he enjoyed “cozy flights” with women.

In another case, a man switched seats to sit next to a young unaccompanied minor. She was trapped next to him while he repeatedly sexually assaulted her for 30 minutes until a flight attendant saw her crying and caught him in the act. He was removed from his seat and arrested by the FBI upon landing.

While the FBI has jurisdiction over airlines and cases of sexual assault while flying, it does not track the number of sexual assaults on planes; neither does the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) or any other organization. According to Slate, in 2014 Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton proposed a bill that would have compelled the FAA to keep statistics on airplane sexual assault. This legislation never came to fruition. In 2015, the best estimate is that there were 170 assaults aboard domestic flights. But sex crimes are cited as one of the most underreported category of crime, so this estimate could likely misrepresent the problem.

Keeping track of these assaults alone will not solve the problem; we live in a rape-friendly culture that laughs at affirmative consent laws, rejects women from juries for being survivors of sexual assault, treats survivors as suspects, questions survivors for taking years to courageously come forward, and teaches survivors that abuse is their fault. Airlines must take a more proactive role in preventing these attacks and making potential perpetrators fear the consequence of their actions.

Currently, it is rare for airlines to release a statement beyond the pre-written boilerplate they have used in many of these cases. In response to the assault of an unaccompanied minor, American Airlines released a lackluster statement: "American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them. We take these matters very seriously…” Being sexually assaulted is not an unpleasant travel experience—it is criminal, dehumanizing, traumatizing, and utterly unacceptable.

So, what is the solution? As it stands, most flight attendants are trained to alert the pilot when a sexual assault occurs so the pilot can make the choice to land the plane immediately or continue to the final destination. The pilot is also in control of alerting the authorities on the ground or deciding that the behavior was simply rude but not criminal. Victims are left with no direct line to contact outside emergency personnel without filtering her assault through undertrained airline employees. The perpetrators of these acts may walk free as soon as the flight lands, making it difficult for authorities to track them down.

The problem is complex and the solution should be well thought out and intersectional. Rape culture—the environment that entitles men to women’s bodies—is to blame, but if airlines took steps to make their stance known that inappropriate and unwanted touching is not tolerated, maybe perpetrators would not feel so protected.

Perhaps airlines could treat sexual assault with the same seriousness as sitting in an exit row and require verbal consent.

Priya Walia is the Reproductive Justice Fellow for If/When/How serving both Legal Voice and Surge. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College of Law (’16) and West Virginia University (’13) and a proud dog mom. Tweet at her @PriyaJWalia

Monday, August 29, 2016

It's Time to Call Out the Deceptive Practices of Crisis Pregnancy Centers

By Lara Hengelbrok

Reproductive health care advocates have won some important victories lately, particularly this summer’s Whole Woman’s Health decision, which preserved and strengthened the constitutional protection of the right to choose. But while we’ve been celebrating, advocates have been waging another battle over reproductive health care. In California, lawmakers and advocates are fighting against the deceptive practices of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that exacerbate existing barriers to reproductive health care access.

CPCs are facilities designed to look like medical clinics providing services for unintended pregnancy, but in reality are venues for anti-choice organizations to coerce pregnant people into carrying their pregnancies to term. CPCs lure pregnant people, particularly those who are low-income, with offers of free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds. They often conceal the fact that they are not medical facilities and do not provide abortion or contraceptive services, even when directly asked. They then lie to clients about the effects of abortion—that abortion causes breast cancer, likelihood of later miscarriage, infertility, and sterility, in addition to spiritual and emotion trauma, PTSD, and depression.

If a crisis pregnancy center has harmed you in some way, or if you have visited one of these centers and want to share your experience with us, please do so now!

CPCs also try to encourage people to wait, either by misinforming them about the length of their pregnancy or the likelihood of miscarriage, which can result in pregnancies being too far progressed for abortion in some states. These delays also prevent women from receiving prenatal care, which can increase the risk of infant mortality.

And in spite of these dangers, CPCs receive support and direct funding from the federal and state governments. Twelve states directly fund and 20 states directly refer people to CPCs. Not to mention that CPCs are being awarded federal grants to provide abstinence-only sex education in public schools, increasing the rate of unintended teen pregnancy.

California responded to the threat that CPCs pose to reproductive health care by enacting the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act. The Act, which went into effect in January of this year, required CPCs licensed under the California Health and Safety Code to provide notice of available free or low-cost reproductive health services, including contraceptives and abortion, through the Medi-Cal program, along with a phone number to the local county social services office. It also requires unlicensed CPCs to affirmatively disclose to all clients that they are not licensed and do not have a licensed medical provider supervising services.

Naturally, CPCs immediately challenged the Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional on free speech grounds. CPCs argued that their speech is protected non-commercial speech because they don’t charge for their services. This argument obscures the connection between their free services and their ability to secure funding, both from private donors and state governments. It also ignores that their false advertising about pregnancy services prevents consumers from accessing the health services they’re seeking.

Fortunately, the Reproductive FACT Act survived preliminary injunctions in federal district courts. Following the decision, Los Angeles City Attorney recently issued warnings to three CPCs for failing to comply with the law. Failure to comply within 30 days would result in a $500 fine, with subsequent violations costing $1000 per offense.

While this may sound like a rather limited regulation with a minor penalty, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Efforts to curb CPCs’ deceptive practices have been largely unsuccessful; even requiring CPCs to affirmatively disclose that they do not provide emergency contraceptives, abortions, or prenatal care has been considered an infringement on free speech. CPCs have argued that these disclosures would impede their ability to express their disavowal of abortion while simultaneously listing abortion as a pregnancy option on their websites and advertisements.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with organizations pursuing religiously motivated advocacy, and CPCs are certainly well within their rights to denounce abortion. But the government funding of CPCs’ campaign of medical misinformation and false advertising, combined with the ceaseless attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion providers, demonstrate that CPCs are just another example of the ongoing assault on bodily autonomy and access to reproductive health care. It’s a relief to see that California legislators and local officials are responding to those threats to reproductive freedom.

Lara Hengelbrok is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at the University of Washington School of Law. She received a PILA Grant to pursue public interest work and hopes to work towards ensuring access to quality education and curriculum reform. She is also a baking goddess and unapologetic pop-culture junkie.

Photo courtesy of Esparta Palma | Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Get it together, Olympic commentators.

By Kelsey Jones

This headline is a metaphor for the entire world, reads the caption for a photo of a newspaper story about the 2016 Rio Olympics. The headline? “Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly.” Underneath it, in smaller type, sits the sub-headline: “Ledecky sets world record in women’s 800 freestyle.”

Katie Ledecky beat the world record and won the gold and was celebrating in the pool before her competitors even touched the wall. That phenomenal performance was placed beneath—in both newspaper layout and newsworthiness—the silver medal performance of Phelps.

The caption spoke to the rampant sexism at the 2016 Olympics, where fans and viewers are repeatedly left dumbfounded by media and commentator coverage. But also to the way that women’s accomplishments are viewed in the world of sports more generally. According to the UK’s Cambridge University Press, male athletes are three times more likely than female athletes to be mentioned in the context of sports, while women are routinely described with regards to their appearance, marital status, and age.

From the opening day of competition, the media aligned with that study. During the women’s gymnastics team final, an announcer commented that Team USA’s gold-winning Final Five appeared to “just be standing around at the mall” while they were waiting for their turn on the next apparatus. And after Hungarian swimmer Katinka HosszĂș’s gold medal and world record performance in the 400-meter individual medley was immediately attributed to her husband and coach, despite the fact that he most definitely was not the one in the pool. Along that same vein, the Chicago Tribune published an article headlined “Wife of Bears’ lineman wins a bronze medal today at Rio Olympics.”

During Ledecky’s performance mentioned in the headline above, she was referred to as a “female Michael Phelps” and was said to “swim like a guy” by fellow USA teammate Ryan Lochte.

The United States has swept up 78 medals so far in Rio. Two of the top three medalists are women: gymnastics star Simone Biles and swimming phenome Katie Ledecky. Yet despite dominating performance after performance, the female athletes have faced blatant sexism in media comments, headlines, and social media commentary.

Of course, the athletes themselves aren't the only ones affected by this gross display of misogyny. Of the millions of people who watch the Olympics, many are undoubtedly young girls who aspire to be like Simone Manual, the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in women’s swimming; or like Katie Ledecky, who appears to be superhuman in the water with her record breaking speed; or like any member of the Final Five, a group that is more diverse and more dominant than any other gymnastics team. Focusing on athletes' appearance or marital status over their accomplishments is unnecessary at best and, at worst, damaging to young girls' perception of their ability to become an Olympic athlete.

The Olympics do not exist in a vacuum. Women’s sports, and women’s accomplishments in general, are much more likely to be belittled or filed under those of a man. In 2016, there is more pushback than ever, but the fact that these instances still occur with shocking regularity is appalling.

Women don’t compete “like a man” when they do well. They perform like the strong, disciplined, talented world class athletes that they are. No comparison necessary.

Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: AgĂȘncia Brasil | Creative Commons

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sexual Harassment and Powerful Men

By Kelsey Jones

It usually remains hidden for some time, as the victim grapples with societal victim blaming, job pressures, and the larger manifestation of the everyday sexism she has endured her whole life. But then she comes forward. And then more women come forward. And then consequences, or hope of consequences, for the offender.

Roger Ailes is the latest in a string of highly publicized sexual harassment and assault cases. The former chief of Fox News recently stepped down after sexual harassment allegations, and a subsequent lawsuit, were brought by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. After that, other reports of sexual harassment came pouring in from employees and former employees.

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly also said she was harassed by Alies, along with other unnamed employees. Ailes’ response to Kelly’s accusations, as released through a statement by Ailes’ lawyer stated: “Roger Ailes has never sexually harassed Megyn Kelly. In fact, he has spent much of the last decade promoting and helping her to achieve the stardom she earned, for which she has repeatedly and publicly thanked him.”

The sinister implications of those words, the indifference to Kelly, and the direct attempt to justify any sexual harassment by claiming to have helped advance her career are all indicative of an abuse of power.

Like in the case of Bill Cosby, who was accused of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment by more than 40 women over the past 40 years. The case is currently working its way through trial but the position of power he held in respect to many of the women is eerily similar to that which Ailes had and used to manipulate women.

This past spring at the University of California, Berkeley, students came forward and accused an assistant professor of sexual harassment. The investigation unearthed unnerving evidence that the university may have been protecting professors who were accused of misconduct against students.

Rape culture and the stigmatization of sexual harassment already minimize and silence victims; compounding those societal pressures with the power dynamic of an influential man makes it even more unlikely that a survivor will speak up—or, if she does, that someone will listen. This abuse of power runs rampant in workplaces, Hollywood, schools, and government institutions like the military, which struggles with a sexual assault rate higher than that of the citizen population.

In 2014, 90% of sexual assaults in the military happened in a military setting, by a higher-ranking service member who knew the victim. Roughly 160,500 men and women were sexually harassed and 20,300 were sexually assaulted, and around 86% never even report the abuse. The military’s pervasive sexual assault and harassment problem again echoes the nationwide pleas for a societal reform.

It is a national crisis. Vice President Joe Biden has worked diligently to raise awareness of the extremely high rate of sexual assault on college campuses, and the military has attempted to create better programs and stricter disciplinary measures.

But a problem so widespread and systemic will not be erased by mere procedural changes for a few institutions. The problem is bred by a culture that promotes the hypersexualization of women, systemic racism and bigotry, and dangerous ideas of masculinity.

Roger Ailes is no longer a public face of Fox News, but the exact details of his departure are still unknown. The suit is still in its infancy and it is unknown whether or not it will lead to any justice for Carlson or the other women Ailes is accused of harassing.

A society that makes it that difficult for consequences of extremely heinous and appalling behavior is a complacent one. We will continue to watch in shock as people come forward, exposing one abuser after another for a handful of headlines and maybe a long trial that may or may not bring any restitution or justice. When will it end?

Ailes' abuse of power is not unique. And that is terrifying.

Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: PumaByDesign | Creative Commons

Friday, July 29, 2016

#NotMyConscience: The Ever-Growing Prioritization of Religion Over Patients' Needs

By Rachel Kuenzi

“The consciences we should protect belong to women who should choose their own reproductive destiny.”
–Rep. Lois Frankel

On July 13, 2016, the House passed the Conscience Protection Act. Based on the title, this bill is agreeable and has nothing to do with my uterus, right? Wrong.

This bill would considerably expand and make permanent the Weldon Amendment, an annual appropriations rider that restricts funding to abortion care. The Conscience Protection Act would allow any “health care entity” to refuse to “facilitate,” “make arrangements for,” or “otherwise participate in” abortion care in order to safeguard the “conscience” of religious employees and institutions. Under this bill, a hospital could refuse to serve a woman in need of medical care and refuse to inform her of her potential treatment options.

This bill is part of a growing trend of “right of conscience” legislation and policies that allow prioritization of religious freedom over medically appropriate standards of care. For instance, Catholic hospitals are guided by the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERD), a set of regulatory guidelines outlining religious healthcare, which mandate that Catholic hospitals cannot provide sterilization procedures, end-of-life procedures, gender transition procedures, contraceptives, abortion, or fertility treatments. Conscience protection laws permit Catholic hospitals to employ the ERDs, ensuring that physicians have no obligation to provide or even inform a patient of her full treatment options if the procedure conflicts with the institution’s “conscience.”

For example, if a woman is suffering from an extra-uterine ectopic pregnancy (that will likely kill her without medical treatment) and is rushed to a Catholic hospital for assistance, the hospital can refuse to treat her because of the ERD and her physician has no obligation to inform her of another institution that could assist her. Such delays in treatment are extremely dangerous and can be life threatening. Further, ERDs routinely prevent physicians from providing treatment they wish to prescribe. In fact, one in five physicians report a conflict between ERDs and their desired recommended treatment.

This growing trend towards prioritizing provider’s “conscience” is particularly concerning given the prevalence of Catholic hospitals and the increase of hospital mergers. Republicans in the House posit the myth that a patient can simply choose another hospital if she does not want her care directed by Catholic beliefs. However, in Washington State, where Catholic institutions own more than 40% of hospital beds in the state, this claim is highly unrealistic. Traveling to non-Catholic hospitals can take hours of driving, substantial amounts of money, and may not be covered by insurance, posing substantial burdens on access to needed health care. What’s more, while there are efforts underway to improve hospital policy transparency, patients often do not realize that their local hospital operates under the ERDs or other restrictive policies and will not provide the services they need.

Instead of prioritizing the hospital’s conscience, shouldn’t we be prioritizing the “conscience” of the patients seeking accurate and legal health care options? What about the “conscience” of the physicians attempting to provide medically appropriate services? Our health system should aim to endorse medically based treatments, use best health care practices, and fully inform patients of all treatment options.

The Obama administration stated that the President would veto the Conscience Protection Act if it arrives on his desk, acknowledging that it would “limit women’s health care choices.” However, with the upcoming election and with “conscience” laws rapidly becoming an expanding frontier for preventing access to reproductive health care, we should be concerned about the passage of the Conscience Protection Act and the ever-growing prioritization of religion over health care needs. This bill is #NotMyConscience!

Rachel Kuenzi is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Public Interest Fellow dedicated to alleviating intimate partner violence and day dreams about founding a domestic violence advocacy theater troupe that includes pro-bono legal services for victims.

Photo courtesy of Pexels | Licensed by Creative Commons 0