Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Want a Divorce? Step right up and pay pay pay

All around the northwest folks are complaining about the ‘historic’ heat wave – Boise 92°, Seattle 95°, Portland 101° – and lamenting the absence of air-conditioning in their homes and offices. Setting aside how spoiled we may be with respect to weather compared to the rest of the country, I couldn’t help reminding myself that most of us at least are able to plug in a fan, or use air conditioning if our homes are equipped.

But what would it be like if you had to choose between paying your utility bill and getting a divorce? Between obtaining a protection order against your abuser and feeding your children? How can anyone make those choices? Yet they do. As things stand now, they have to.

Since 1971 it has been settled law that a poor person who could not afford the filing fee for a divorce is constitutionally entitled to have the fee waived. In Boddie v. Connecticut the U.S. Supreme Court held that due process prevents a state from refusing a divorce because of inability to pay. Now, almost 40 years later, that fundamental right is being denied to women and men all around the State of Washington.

There’s no doubt the legal system throughout the country faces extreme financial challenges, challenges that in Washington are exacerbated by our outmoded and ineffective funding system. Washington ranks 50th among the states in state funding for trial-court related operations. Legal Voice supports the efforts of the Equal Justice Coalition and others to increase funding for the courts and for legal services, and we encourage you to do the same.

But even as we advocate for increased funding for legal aid, we have to stand up against the response of courts around the state, which is to impose extra filing fees for various motions and other procedures in divorce matters, and then refuse to waive those fees for indigent persons. This tactic is not only unfair, it’s just plain UNCONSTITUTIONAL. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that’s still considered a bad thing, especially when perpetrated by the very court system to which we turn for protection of our rights.

From Spokane to Everett, from Vancouver to Bellingham, women and men who want to get divorced are being turned away, told they have to wait until they have saved enough money to pay the extra fees, and just plain deprived of their rights. We’re getting reports that court clerks, judges and commissioners are refusing to process divorces unless the person pays those fees. And, as is often the case when justice goes awry, this happens mostly to people who are pro se (representing themselves).

So here’s a heads-up: if you are getting divorced, and you are truly indigent, you have a constitutional right to get that procedure handled in court without paying extra fees. If it happens to you, we want to know about it. And another heads-up: if you’re one of the officials or institutions depriving people of that right, you should know that Legal Voice is on the case.

Monday, July 27, 2009

There Is No More Time To Wait


I know a number of people who don’t believe in marriage: gay, straight, bi, young, old, you name it. I’m sure this would cause those on both sides of the marriage equality debate – both of whom tout marriage as the “backbone of our society,” to faint, or at the very least lose faith in humanity. What you might find interesting is that even among these non-marriage-prone folks, support for marriage equality abounds. Why, you ask? Because marriage equality isn’t just about marriage…it’s about equality. Hmmm. Who would’ve figured?

Though I’m feeling rather triumphant that the Matthew Shephard Hate Crime Bill passed the Senate today and will be on its way to the President’s desk shortly, I’m well aware that this is not the full answer to preventing violence against LGBT individuals. Equality promotes acceptance. As (wise beyond his years) 17-year-old James Neiley testified to the Vermont Legislature back in February, “Without marriage equality, the boys in the locker room during gym class who harassed me are encouraged to believe that my sexuality means there is something different, wrong, and lesser about me.”

There have been far too many violent crimes committed against LGBT individuals to date, crimes motivated by ignorance and hatred. I can’t help but think that there’s a direct correlation between how our laws treat LGBT individuals and families, and how they are treated by their neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens.

For this reason I have a hard time when someone tells me to be patient and let the anti-equality movement have their “death rattle.” There is no more time to wait. Equality is about acceptance and acceptance means safety for those who are currently being persecuted for their sexual orientation. As long as discrimination is allowed to exist in our government system, as long as LGBT people are treated as “lesser than” by the laws we pass, as long as it is against the law to simultaneously serve in the military and make your sexual identity known, the violence and hatred will continue. This is why we need LGBT rights now; not a few rights, not most rights, but ALL rights.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Everyone Needs a Hero

Our decision to organize our annual Auction (join us on October 17th) around the theme “Heroes” is partly about having fun – think of the Xena, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Harry Potter costume options – and partly, perhaps, a reflection of people’s need for hope and comfort in these chaotic times. To whom can we look for inspiration? What memories or stories console and energize us?

Ask the next five people you meet who their heroes are and why: I’ll bet you’ll hear a combination of historical and fictional figures, leavened with a sizable sample of relatives. His mother; her grandfather; big sister, inspiring niece. We seem to swoop back and forth between the intimate, familial stories of accomplishment and perseverance, and the outsized and sometimes improbable attainments of power and salvation.

My first reaction was to think of my maternal grandmother. That’s not going to help with the costume, as she was a librarian. I’m fashion-challenged enough without succumbing to stereotypical frumpishness.

But how she became a librarian, and what that meant for her, for thousands of people in some rural areas of California, and for me – now that’s an heroic story.

Lois Magee was 40 years old and living in Taft, CA (pop. 3700, charm nonexistent) with two teen-age children when her husband died in 1953. To make a living for herself and her family she transformed a lifelong passion – reading – into a job and then a career. She got a job in the local library, then obtained a Masters Degree in Library Science. Eventually she became County Librarian of Kern County, overseeing one of the most geographically wide-ranging library systems in the state. And always, she spread her passion for books and learning wherever she went, to whomever she met.

She taught me, and thousands of library patrons in the various libraries she staffed and visited, the wonders to be found in books. She opened windows into escape, solace, adventure and learning. Whether it was introducing children to their first “big book” or answering obscure questions from folks wandering down research pathways, she never forgot the joy inherent in one’s first exposure to the magic of the library. And she always had a sense of humor about it: she laughed every time at the hysteria Marian the Librarian falls into when the Music Man wreaks havoc in her quiet library, and she worked hard to balance the “SSSSSHHHHHHH” of library lore with the noise that necessarily accompanies the “AHA” of a new fact learned or a great idea assimilated.

I still don’t know how I’ll manifest the Heroes theme at our Auction (though you can count out both breastplates and a dowdy suit), but I do know a hero when I see one, so here’s a shout out to my grandmother and to all the librarians who embody her spirit. Check out one of my current favorites, Mary Whisner, and don’t miss her blogs -- they're fun, informational and best of all, you don't have to know the Dewey Decimal System to enjoy them.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Part of “Basic Women’s Reproductive Health” Do They Not Understand?!

We knew all along that the process of legislating health care reform would be thorny. And we knew that there would be debates about who would be covered and how to pay for these reforms.

What we did not expect was that any health care “reform” proposal might actually roll back existing reproductive health coverage for millions of women.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in March that “there is almost anything compromisable in public affairs. Abortion is about the only issue I know of that's not compromisable.” That’s no surprise. But then in June, 19 anti-choice Democrats laid down the gauntlet in a June letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, threatening to withhold support for any reform package that does not include an explicit exclusion of abortion services.

Here’s a nutshell version of the current status quo regarding abortion coverage:
  • The seven million very low-income American women (12 percent of women of reproductive age) who are covered by Medicaid have been denied abortion coverage since 1976, when the Hyde Amendment banned Medicaid from paying for abortions - currently, except in the case of rape, incest, or endangerment to the woman’s life. This means that if there is a fetal anomaly or nonviable fetus, for example, or “just” danger to the woman’s health (as opposed to her life), an abortion is not covered. And only 17 states make up for this lack of coverage by using their own funds to provide abortion care for low-income women.

  • Others who do not receive Medicaid, but whose health insurance is subsidized by the federal government – including federal employees, members of the U.S. military, Peace Corps volunteers, and prisoners – are also barred from using their health coverage to access abortion.

  • The majority – roughly 87% – of employer-sponsored private health care insurance plans do cover abortion services (according to a 2002 Guttmacher Institute study). This is NOT to say, however, that these women have actual access to abortion providers – that’s another story.

(For more discussion of this issue, check out NPR, American Prospect, Newsweek and Time.)

If efforts to drop the “A bomb” succeed in limiting coverage, here’s what might happen:

  • Millions of low-income women will continue to be denied access to abortion coverage.
  • If a public option plan is adopted, whatever portion of the 37 million currently uninsured Americans who choose such a plan might be subject to similar constraints on abortion services as those covered by Medicaid.

  • If Congress adopts legislation that provides government subsidies to help people purchase health care coverage – current House proposals would help subsidize coverage for Americans earning up to 400% of the poverty level – these people too might also then be denied access to abortion coverage, similar to current federal employees.

  • If legislators back a Massachusetts-style health insurance purchasing exchange – sometimes referred to as “an Orbitz for health plans” that would organize and impose certain structures on the health insurance market – all participating plans might well be required to adopt abortion exclusions. Again, people whose best option is to purchase insurance through such an exchange might be denied coverage for abortion services.

In other words, if anti-choice legislators have their way, not only might the millions of women who currently lack abortion coverage continue to be denied, women who currently DO have coverage might lose it.

What is also particularly scary is that anti-choice advocates are warping the discussion so that not just abortion, but broader reproductive health may be at stake. They claim that “family planning” is code for “abortion” – but in fact, often “abortion” becomes a code word for all reproductive health services, including comprehensive, medically accurate sex education (read: not just abstinence-only), contraception, and even screenings for STDs.

Simply put, reproductive care is basic primary care for many women of reproductive age. Rather than passing a blanket exclusion on any particular category of medical procedure (which is, after all, what abortion is), Congress should instead let medical professionals determine what health-care services should be included any reform proposal.

The majority of voters get this. According to a recent poll, voters overwhelmingly support requiring health plans to cover women’s reproductive health services (71% favor). And 72% reported that they would feel angry if Congress mandated by law that abortion would not be covered under a national health care plan.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) apparently gets this; she’s said that ensuring that women have health care equal to men is a simple matter of fairness.

Let’s raise our voices and make sure that all of Senator Murray’s colleagues also get this. Tell your Senators and Representatives (click here to find out who yours are) that you want women’s reproductive health care covered – including abortion and contraception.

We need health care reform that is based on our basic health care needs – not politics.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has Sonia Sotomayor's back.

What impressed me most about Emily Bazelon’s recent interview with Justice Ginsburg in the New York Times was the fact that, at every opportunity she was given, Justice Ginsburg stood behind Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Though she spoke at length about how woman justices are perceived through the lens of gender, a few brief quotes illustrate her display of support for Sotomayor:

Q: Now that Judge Sotomayor has been nominated, how do you feel about [how long it has taken to see another woman nominated to the Supreme Court]?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: I feel great that I don’t have to be the lone woman around this place.

Q: It seemed to me that male judges do […] abrasive things all the time, and it goes unremarked.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the notion that Sonia is an aggressive questioner — what else is new? Has anybody watched Scalia or Breyer up on the bench?

Q: She’ll fit right in?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: She’ll hold her own.

Q: What do you think about Judge Sotomayor’s frank remarks that she is a product of affirmative action?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: So am I. […]


Thank you, Justice Ginsburg! In a world plagued by the glamorization of catty infighting and pointlessly vicious competition among women, this interview is a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Of Birthdays and Health Care Reform

Monday was my son’s birthday. While birthdays usually bring to mind thoughts of cake, ice cream, and presents, this year, with health care reform in the air, I’ve been thinking about the medical and economic side of childbirth – and how different the experience might have been if I hadn’t had comprehensive health care coverage and access to a full-range of services.

First, what if I hadn’t had access to job-based health insurance? If I didn’t qualify for Medicaid (a whole other can of worms with regard to reproductive health care), I might have sought health insurance on the individual market.

If I were already pregnant, an insurance company might either exclude maternity care (including prenatal care) by deeming the pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition,” or reject me altogether. This could well be perfectly legal; while statutes prohibit gender discrimination in employment benefits, most states do not expressly prohibit the use of gender, health status, or age in individual market insurance.

As with other types of health care, a huge issue for private maternity care coverage is the cost. It would be OK in many states to charge me more for a basic policy simply because of my gender on the assumption – sometimes, but not always borne out – that any individual woman would incur more health care expenses. Further, many individual market policies don’t even include maternity care as part of the standard policy, so women have to pay more for supplemental maternity insurance on top of the already expensive basic policies.

After I returned home with my new baby, I could then look forward to the hospital bill. Without maternity care benefits, the average hospital charge alone for having a child ranges from $7,500 for a vaginal delivery without complications to $17,000 for a Caesarean delivery with complications. Depending on the policy, in some cases I might even end up paying more with insurance! (See page 12 of the National Women’s Law Center’s report.) It is no wonder that having a child is a leading cause of poverty spells for families.

And for the next kid? I might have been denied health insurance coverage altogether because my first child was delivered via Caesarean section. And also because I had a previous C-section, I might not even be allowed to attempt a VBAC (vaginal birth after Caesarean) – even though avoiding surgery is often better for the health of the mother and the baby, and cheaper, to boot. (The U.S. C-section rate, by the way, rose to a record 31.8 percent in 2007 – far higher than the World Health Organization-recommended 15% for developed countries, and an increase of over 50% in the past 11 years.)

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling pretty lucky things turned out as they did for my family. But I’m feeling equally passionate that comprehensive health care reform must ensure that all pregnant women and newborns have access to the quality medical care I and my son had. A birthday should be a cause for celebration, after all.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Claiming "heroes"

Legal Voice has an auction coming up on October 17, and we recently picked a theme for the event: “Heroes.”

Legal Voice Executive Director and blogger Lisa Stone looked up the definition the other day, and as she observed “Why did I not think more carefully before voting for "heroes"? Who knew the damn definition was so gendered?”


If feminists can reclaim a word like “bitch,” can we PUH-LEEZE get to work on claiming “hero” too? (I would say that terms like “heroine” and “sheroes” don’t quite cut it for our purposes.)

As far as kick-ass women in mass media go, I can think of a government official (who put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling), some funny ladies, a writer and a news anchor that I’d call heroes. Jezebel even came up with 20 feminist TV characters who could qualify as heroes. (They forgot Maude, though. Update: Just kidding! Maude is FIRST ON THE LIST. Duh.)

Who are your heroes?

"Gay Marriage" is Responsible for Global Warming

Being both a logophile and a verbal processor, I am rarely at a loss for words. I don’t claim they are always coherent, and sadly, they are not always printable, but as a rule words are reliably available to me. Yet here I am, speechless and wordless.

And I can’t quite decide whether to laugh, cry or rage as I struggle for words. In case you hadn’t heard, the marital travails of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (R, S.C. and Argentina) stem from the fight for marriage equality. His wife says, “Gay marriage wrecked my family”. Her marriage was “perfect until these laws started passing around the country”.

Then I realize: it’s a joke. Satire, or attempted satire. The not-so-funny thing is, though, thousands of people were fooled. And why is that?

Because it could be true. Because it sounds just enough like the venom the anti-woman, homophobic, anti-family, anti-choice people prolifically spew out that it could be a genuine news story. So, what if it were? What if Mrs. Sanford et al. really did blame the marriage equality movement for their troubles? How would we respond?

Well, first of all, with empathy, of course. After all, I know the feeling: My parents’ marriage was perfect until California passed a recycling bill. Then, kaput. Wait – maybe it was when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment forbidding the government from paying for abortions for low-income women. Well, whichever it was, their relationship just didn’t stand a chance once those laws started passing. I want a refund on my childhood, or at least on what’s bound to be years of counseling. Just bill Nancy Reagan: it must be something Ronnie did, either as Governor of California when I was a kid, or as President.

But no, this story was a joke, not a true attack. This time. Nonetheless, its similarity to the vitriol we hear and read every day should be a reminder that we can’t just absorb it in silence, trying to take the high road. Sometimes THAT’S the road to hell -------- or at least to the failure of our movement.

We simply must stop treating these attacks as irrelevant, and start responding to them as the insidious evil they are. The relentless vilification not only of LGBT persons, but also of the liberal and progressive movements, requires us to begin articulating our moral and family values and engaging in effective communication about them. Because otherwise, once that energy bill passes, who knows what moral decay will occur?