A reproductive health-care clinic in Kansas City, Kansas, has permanently closed its doors, leaving the state with just three clinics that provide abortion care.
The retirement of Aid For Women clinic manager and physician Jeff Pederson led to the clinic closing its doors for the last time Saturday.
A message on the clinic’s website says that patients seeking abortion care are being referred to the remaining clinics in the area. “I am sorry for the trouble this may cause you. We thank you for showing your trust in us and will miss you and your heart-felt stories of family hardships,” the message states.
The three remaining clinics in the state are the Center for Women’s Health and the Planned Parenthood Comprehensive Health Center, both in suburban Kansas City, and the South Wind Women’s Center, which opened last year on the site of Dr. George Tiller’s former clinic in Wichita.
The closure comes at a time when Aid For Women has been a target of anti-choice state lawmakers and regulators.
In 2011, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment sought to require abortion facilities to adhere to new, more stringent building requirements. The regulations would have forced Aid For Women to close, as it was battling to keep its license under the new guidelines, but a federal judge blocked enforcement of the law.
Over the last several years Kansas lawmakers in the state have been passing bills to increase regulations of reproductive health-care clinics. These include a law requiring abortion providers to inform people seeking abortions that they’re ending the life of a ‘‘whole, separate, unique, living human being.”
The Aid For Women clinic also has been the target of Wichita-based radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue. The organization filed a complaint with the state Board of Healing Arts in 2012 alleging that the clinic failed to report child sexual abuse, which the clinic’s lawyers have denied is true.
In a statement after the closure, Operation Rescue President Troy Newman took partial credit for the clinic closing, saying that his organization “contributed [in part] to [Pederson's] decision to retire and shut down.”
In 2009, Aid For Women also was the target of anti-choice violence. Scott Roeder vandalized the clinic on two separate occasions, just one week before killing Dr. Tiller in Wichita. Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder in 2010.
The closure further limits access to abortion care not just in the state but also in the region. In neighboring Missouri, there is only one clinic, which also has been the target of anti-choice state lawmakers. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, a recently signed law will likely close all but one of the abortion clinics in that state.
Clinic manager Jeff Pederson told the Associated Press that if people value having access to reproductive health care then they need to “step up” and join the fight.
“The generation of patients whom we have helped need to step up and carry the torch instead of assuming clinic workers will always fight their battle, the battle for the right to have safe, legal, easily accessible birth control and abortions, and without having to travel to a few enlightened Democratic States,” said Pederson in a statement provided to the AP.
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan, independent agency responsible for investigating civil rights issues, held a briefing on Friday to discuss the effects of recent federal guidance on Title IX sexual harassment law in schools, and whether that guidance might come in conflict with the First Amendment.
The hearing centered around the 2013 “Montana agreement,” a resolution reached between federal agencies and the University of Montana at Missoula after the university and local law enforcement were found to have failed to adequately address allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Failure to protect students from sexual violence and harassment is a violation of Title IX, a statute that protects students from gender-based discrimination, and violating Title IX puts schools in jeopardy of losing federal funding.
The Montana agreement was only binding on the University of Montana at Missoula, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) called it a “blueprint” and a model for other schools around the country.
Some witnesses at the hearing were concerned that this “blueprint” broadened the definition of “sexual harassment” in a way that could infringe on free speech rights. Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Ada Meloy of the American Council on Education testified that the Montana agreement defined sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct.” This definition, they claimed, is an alarmingly broad standard that could allow student discussion of gender roles or Lolita to be considered harassment.
However, the definition of sexual harassment used in the Montana agreement is not new, and not all potential acts of sexual harassment can trigger disciplinary measures. To violate Title IX, a school must fail to take “immediate effective action” against an offense it knew or should have known about, and that offense has to create a “hostile environment” for the victim that is “sufficiently serious to deny or limit the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the program.” Hostile environments can be created either by severity or pervasiveness; that is, a single rape or sexual assault can be enough to create a hostile environment, but so can repeated incidents of unwelcome sexual advances or intimidation.
DOJ and OCR officials clarified during the hearing that the definition of sexual harassment hasn’t been broadened. Rather, they said, the agencies criticized Missoula for “conflating the definitions of ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘hostile environment’” in a way that discouraged students from coming forward. It’s not the student’s job to determine whether their harassment created a hostile environment, said OCR principal deputy assistant secretary Seth Galanter, but the university’s. “You have to be open to all complaints, and then you have to figure out if it’s a hostile environment,” Galanter said. Because sexual harassment and assault are so severely underreported, Galanter said, it’s important to reduce barriers that discourage students from reporting. Moreover, a student’s subjective experience of offense isn’t enough to determine a hostile environment; “objective” measures of what a “reasonable person” would find offensive have to be considered as well as subjective factors.
The Montana agreement also clarified that a “preponderance of the evidence” standard should be used in adjudicating sexual assault complaints, rather than a stricter “clear and convincing evidence” standard. About 80 percent of schools already use this standard, officials said. The National Women’s Law Center argues that the preponderance of the evidence standard is appropriate for sexual misconduct because of “the unique barriers that sexual harassment and violence complainants face,” and because universities aren’t able to find students guilty of a crime or a civil liability.
“Schools can take steps to meet their obligations under Title IX that are entirely consistent with the First Amendment,” said Fatima Goss Graves, National Women’s Law Center vice president for education and employment. “There is no constitutional right to be a bully.”
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A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a former Planned Parenthood executive who claimed the organization had overcharged federal and state health programs by more than $200 million in fees for birth control for low-income patients.
P. Victor Gonzalez is a former chief financial officer for Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, where he worked for about two years before the organization fired him. Gonzalez says the organization let him go because he raised concerns about its practice of marking up the cost of the drugs it purchased under a federal drug-pricing discount program. Planned Parenthood denied Gonzalez’s allegations.
More than a year after he was fired, Gonzalez filed a qui tam suit, which is a type of fraud claim brought by individuals against government contractors and is designed to protect public finances, under both the federal False Claims Act (FCA) and the California False Claims Act. He alleged that Planned Parenthood had “fraudulently billed” state and federal family planning programs in this mark-up that cost taxpayers more than $200 million. A type of whistleblower claim, qui tam actions allow individuals who claim to have knowledge about fraud committed by contractors against the government to sue on behalf of the government to recover money lost due to the alleged fraudulent practices. Successful claims under federal and state false claim acts usually allow a claimant to receive a portion of any funds recovered, which can range anywhere from 15 to 25 percent.
Gonzalez amended his complaint three times to try and assert a fraud claim against Planned Parenthood. A lower court finally dismissed Gonzalez’s claims, finding he couldn’t make out a fraud case against Planned Parenthood under federal law and that his claims under California law were barred by that law’s three-year statute of limitations. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision, finding little if any factual basis for Gonzalez’s allegations to begin with.
“Here, Gonzalez did not plausibly state a claim under the FCA because his assertion that Planned Parenthood knowingly submitted false claims for reimbursement is compellingly contradicted by a series of letters he attached to his complaint,” the Ninth Circuit held. “In the first exchange of letters, from 1997 to 1998, the [California Department of Human Services] expressed concern over Planned Parenthood’s billing practices, but remained silent when Planned Parenthood explicitly described its billing practices and rationale.” The opinion continued, “[t]he State did not even pursue money owed by Planned Parenthood, let alone suggest that Planned Parenthood had made knowingly false claims.”
Among the attorneys representing Gonzalez was Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy organization. Sekulow has built a career out of representing religious conservatives and anti-choice activists like Operation Rescue, and is better known for bringing First Amendment claims on behalf of abortion clinic protesters and student Christian groups for access to public schools. But Gonzalez’s claims fit within the group’s larger opposition to reproductive rights and health care generally, as well as the right’s overall goal to defund Planned Parenthood, either through legislation or litigation.
Religious conservatives frequently accuse Planned Parenthood of defrauding taxpayers, and Gonzalez’s lawsuit is another variation of that theme. But accusing an organization of fraud in the court of public opinion and proving fraud it in a court of law are two very different things—a point the Ninth Circuit stressed in affirming the dismissal of Gonzalez’s claims. “Gonzalez’s allegation that Planned Parenthood knowingly submitted false claims is only ‘merely possible rather than plausible,’” the court wrote. “[A]nd he cannot overcome the plausible and obvious explanation that Planned Parenthood did not knowingly submit false claims.”
Image: Gavel via Shutterstock
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Legal Wrap is a weekly round-up of key legal reproductive rights and justice news.
The dust is still settling from the Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, but it’s safe to say that neither the issue of conservatives trying to use religious freedom arguments to mask intentional discrimination nor litigation surrounding the Affordable Care Act are going away any time soon. Two federal appeals courts are split on whether or not the Affordable Care Act allows the federal government to subsidize insurance premiums in federally run exchanges; I explain what happened here.
Meanwhile, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), arguing that members of Congress and their employees should be ineligible for subsidies to cover their premium costs.
That didn’t stop Republicans from taking steps to sue the president over delays in implementing the health-care law Republicans obstructed in order to prevent its implementation entirely.
In response to the Hobby Lobby decision, Democratic lawmakers have renewed the push for an Equal Rights Amendment.
That’s better than the Obama administration’s response, which is apparently to try and give more concessions to conservative religious objectors.
At least the executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in federal contracts signed by President Obama doesn’t include an enormous carve-out for conservatives with a religious objection to equality.
On the flip side, a nurse who has a religious objection to contraception has filed a lawsuit against a family planning center in Florida that did not hire her. Sara Hellwege applied for a job at Tampa Family Health Centers, a family planning clinic that receives federal Title X funding. During the hiring process, Hellwege told staff she would be unwilling to prescribe birth control if hired. Hellwege now claims the clinic’s refusal to hire her amounts to discrimination on the basis of her religious objections to contraception.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen argued in a brief before a federal appeals court in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage that marriage equality, just like abortion, is not really a fundamental right because the state has the power to make accessing that right more difficult, if not impossible.
Good news! Massachusetts responds to the McCullen v. Coakley decision by passing new legislation designed to protect abortion patients and providers from anti-choice harassment.
Elsewhere, a New Hampshire judge delayed arguments in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new law creating buffer zones of up to 25 feet around abortion clinics after the state’s attorney general agreed not to enforce the law.
Pro-Life Mississippi filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Jackson, Mississippi, police department, accusing the department of “blatant and ongoing” violations of the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
In Florida, a judge ruled that zoning restrictions prevent a new Planned Parenthood facility in Kissimmee from performing abortions.
The Federal Election Commission dismissed a complaint brought by Operation Rescue against the political action committee of the Trust Women Foundation, the organization responsible for opening a clinic on the site of Dr. George Tiller’s former clinic in Wichita, Kansas.
In abortion restriction-related news, anti-choice advocates are trying to get a federal appeals court to overturn a ruling blocking Idaho’s 20-week abortion ban, while a Wisconsin judge clarified that under new restrictions doctors need not be present when a woman takes drugs prescribed to her for a medical abortion.
Legal advocacy groups filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Tennessee lawmakers of adopting policies that unlawfully delay and deny health coverage to people eligible for Medicaid.
The Montana Supreme Court publicly censured for misconduct a judge who had sentenced an admitted rapist to only 30 days in jail because his 14-year-old victim “appeared older than her chronological age.”
Sarah Kliff has this piece that looks at the links between states that deny anti-psychotic medications to the poor and high numbers of mentally ill individuals in prisons.
Finally, Zoe Greenberg has this must-read on anti-choice advocacy groups’ efforts to stack state courts.
Image: Justice via Shutterstock
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As Teddy Wilson reported for RH Reality Check, anti-choice protesters from the group Operation Save America spent a week recently harassing the residents of New Orleans (as though that city has not had its share of grief in recent years). The ostensible reason for the protests was to target a Planned Parenthood that’s being built in the area to provide legal abortion care, but one incident in particular showed how “abortion” continues to be a Trojan horse for the real agenda here: a fundamentalist attack on the long-standing American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.
Some of the anti-choice activists invaded the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans while members were observing a moment of silence for a deceased congregant and proceeded to abuse and harass the people inside the church. The folks from Operation Save America were hardly ashamed of this deplorable behavior, instead bragging on their website about disrupting services at the “synagogue of Satan” and making special note of haranguing the female pastor, who they called a “pastor,” in scare quotes. (But they’re in this for “life” and not because they have a problem with women!) This behavior isn’t necessarily any worse than the miseries they subject clinic patients and workers to, but it serves as a reminder that the reason anti-choice “protesters” get into the lifestyle is that they are bullies, full stop.
Why did they pick on a Unitarian church? The ostensible reason is Unitarian support for reproductive rights and social justice, which antis seem to have decided Jesus was against, despite biblical evidence to the contrary. But let’s be honest here: Their hostility against the church likely was just as much, if not more, about the long-standing fundamentalist hostility to the Unitarian church for being open-minded and accepting of people who have a variety of beliefs. Unitarians have been targeted for hate crimes before, most notably in a Knoxville shooting in 2008.
(It’s worth pointing out that while Operation Save America—like most fundamentalist organizations—imagines itself “restoring” some kind of halcyon past, the Unitarian Universalist Church has deeper roots in American history than Bible-thumping fundamentalism. The two churches, which combined in the 1960s, date back to 1793 and 1825. In contrast, belief in the “Rapture,” which is a common marker of modern evangelical fundamentalists, only really started in the late 19th century and only became popular in the late 20th century.)
Basically, “abortion” was just a flimsy cover for what’s really going on, which is a fundamentalist war on the very Enlightenment principles—of which the Unitarian Universalist Church is a long-standing historical emblem—that undergird our Constitution. There are many pro-choice churches, but the religious pluralism of the Unitarians is what really sets fundamentalists off. Indeed, there’s a strong reason to believe that the religious right is basically using the battle over reproductive rights to advance a much larger agenda against religious tolerance. And the strategy is to argue that their own “religious freedom” cannot be protected without taking yours away.
That is, after all, what’s at the heart of the two recent Supreme Court decisions over whether or not abortion clinics can have buffer zones and whether or not your boss’s opinion on birth control should matter more than your own when it comes to insurance coverage of contraception. In both cases, anti-choicers argued that their own freedom could only be protected by taking someone else’s away. With the abortion buffer zone case, anti-choicers argued that their “right” to impose their views on you should trump your right to ignore them. In the Hobby Lobby case, anti-choicers argued that “religious freedom” can only be protected by forcing other people’s health-care plans to meet your own religious beliefs, just because they work for you. In both cases, anti-choicers won with the argument that the fundamentalist “right” to impose their religion trumps the American tradition of religious tolerance.
Now the argument that the “religious freedom” of fundamentalists relies on taking the freedoms of others away is out there, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was heard recently encouraging opponents of gay rights to see themselves as victimized and their religious freedom being trod upon, even though they are actually the ones seeking to take away the rights of others. “[T]oday, there is a growing intolerance on this issue, intolerance towards those who continue to support traditional marriage,” he said, claiming that it’s wrong, for instance, for the CEO of Mozilla to be forced out for being anti-gay. (Rubio did not extend this logic to its conclusion and argue for reinstating Donald Sterling as the owner of the LA Clippers. Why is it OK to fire people for being racist, but not for being anti-gay, Rubio?)
But mostly his argument rested on the assumption that calling bigotry by its rightful name is somehow a grievous violation of human rights. “And I promise you that even before this speech is over, I will be attacked as a hater, a bigot or someone who is anti-gay,” he said. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy.”
The problem with this is no one is actually being “intolerant” of homophobes. No one is arguing that their freedom of speech should be denied, nor are they arguing that churches that preach anti-gay views should be shut down. No one is denying their right to organize or to hate gay people as long as they want. The “offensive” thing that gay rights activists are doing is fighting for their own rights. At the end of the day, what this argument boils down to is suggesting that the religious freedom of fundamentalists can only be protected by taking away the freedom, religious and otherwise, of gay people to marry—that your same-sex marriage somehow deprives them of rights.
Obviously, people should support reproductive rights for the sake of women’s health and well-being. But it’s also important to understand that while the attacks on reproductive rights are quite sincere—antis really are upset that you have sex without their permission!—the issue is part and parcel of a larger campaign to end the long American tradition of religious plurality, of understanding that the best way for religious freedom to be protected is for everyone to stay in their own lanes. It’s about giving fundamentalists not just the right to practice their own faith but the “right” to foist their faith on you.
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