Sunday, February 28, 2016

Abortion back in SCOTUS this week, with little mention of distance, new focus on the shortage of providers

Abortion regulation and litigation is very much back in the news this month.  The New York Times has run a number stories, op-eds and even an editorial board opinion this past week about abortion regulation and the decisions of federal courts regarding the constitutionality of those regulations (so-called TRAP laws--targeted regulation of abortion providers).  Just three of those stories are herehere and here, and what is striking to me about them (other than the sheer volume of bad news regarding diminishing abortion access, especially across the South) is that the rhetoric and concern is shifting further away from the obstacles of distance and poverty (admittedly my pet concerns, as discussed herehere, here and here) to a concern more widespread among reproductive-age women:  the shrinking number of abortion providers--especially in certain regions--means long wait times for all women seeking abortion services.  (Among other places, we see this in a 2014 decision by Judge Myron Thompson of the federal district court in Alabama and in the recent 7th Circuit opinions regarding a Wisconsin law that requires hospital admitting privileges).  This shortage of providers delays abortions until much later in women's pregnancies, thereby increasing the likelihood of complications and making abortion more expensive.  (In the education sector, we would say the services are "impacted"--hard to get because of high demand.)

These are matters of great concern for all women, but I can't let go of the distance issue just yet, not least because of my outrage at some of the knuckle-headed things that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has said about abortion availability and the failure to meet the undue burden standard.  (Read more here).  The court is, for example, now treating as a firmly entrenched and unassailable constitutional truth the proposition that traveling up to 150 miles, each way, to reach an abortion provider, does not constitute an "undue burden."  That court in particular has been very stubborn about not recognizing the plight of poor and rural women.  With that in mind, let me highlight some of the key points from this week's news and opinion coverage of abortion regulation and the pending oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Linda Greenhouse's op-ed in today's Sunday NYT is titled "Courts Shouldn't Ignore the Facts About Abortion Rights."  In it, she lists some critical facts that the Supreme Court should take seriously in the Hellerstedt case, in which oral arguments will be heard on Wednesday, March 3.  One of those facts is:
Fact No. 2: If [Texas H.B. 2] goes into effect, the abortion clinics in El Paso will close, leaving no abortion services from San Antonio west to the New Mexico border. This is no problem, Texas maintains, because women who would have gone to El Paso can travel about 12 miles farther, across the New Mexico line, to an abortion clinic in Santa Teresa, N.M. The fact that New Mexico has neither the admitting-privileges nor mini-hospital requirements — the very requirements that Texas maintains are necessary to protect the safety of abortion patients — seems not to concern the state.
This is the only mention of distance in Greenhouse's op-ed, which fails to note that the current state of abortion availability in Texas--following implementation and upholding of the admitting privileges requirement of Texas H.B.2--has nearly 1 million reproductive age women living at least 150 miles from an abortion provider.  The women whose access to abortion has been greatly reduced are in south and west Texas, far from the surviving abortion clinics along the I-35 and I-45 corridors.

Erik Eckholm's recent story in the NYT focuses on the situation in Alabama (previously in the Fifth Circuit with Texas and Louisiana, but now in he 11th Circuit with Florida). It features June Ayers, who owns and directs Reproductive Health Services there.  The burden of distance is definitely a feature of the story, though it comes up only at the end:
Already, many of the 1,000 to 1,200 women obtaining abortions at this clinic each year face hours of driving, Ms. Ayers said, and all must make the trip twice because the state requires a 48-hour waiting period after the first visit, which abortion opponents hope will cause those planning to end their pregnancies to have second thoughts. More than two-thirds of the clinic’s patients live at or below the poverty line, and a large majority already have at least one child, she said.
Eckholm's story also features Ashley Garza, a 29-year-old veteran who drove two hours from southeastern Alabama, with her boyfriend, to get an abortion at the Montgomery Clinic.  Eckholm quotes Garza, who experienced extreme hardship as a child, and who is using her G.I. Bill to pursue a degree in social work:
If I had a child now, we’d be in absolute poverty.  It wouldn’t be fair to the child.
If the Montgomery clinic closed, Ms. Garza would have to drive five hours to Huntsville, the sole clinic to survive Alabama regulations.  That, Ms. Garza commented, is something “a lot of women just couldn’t do.”

So now let's consider how all of these issues look in the current litigation.  The Petitioners' brief in Hellerstedt doesn't talk much about the burden of distance--not as much as I expected given the focus on distance in the courts below.  It does, however, quote some of the most powerful language from Judge Lee Yeakel's decision in the federal district court, including this:
"increased travel distances combine with practical concerns unique to every woman." to create barriers to abortion access.  ... These practical concerns include "lack of availability of child care, unreliability of transportation, unavailability of appointments at abortion facilities, unavailability of time off from work, immigration status and inability to pass border checkpoints, poverty level, the time and expense involved in traveling long distances, and other inarticulable psychological obstacles." 
That is followed by the sole mention of rural women, again quoting from the district court:
"The district court also noted that "the act's two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women throughout Texas, regardless of the absolute distance they may have to travel to obtain an abortion."
It may prove a good litigation strategy to focus on that which burdens all women rather than "only" those living far from the major metropolitan areas where abortion providers are still able to stay "open," providing services.  One reason that this shift away from the burden of distance and poverty bothers me, however, is that courts are not being compelled to see and grapple with the lived realities of more vulnerable segments of the population.  And on that issue I'm with Linda Greenhouse:  I'd really like to see Supreme Court Justices actually facing--and not evading--some cold hard facts.  Besides, if urban women are having difficulty getting timely appointments for abortion, just think how much more challenging the situation remains for poor and rural women who must overcome so many more obstacles in order to get to whatever appointment they are able to get.    

One of the questions this turn in the litigation raises for me is this:  Will the reproductive rights community do a better job of advocating against laws that curb the rights of all women--women "like them"--than they have done advocating for the well-being of the poor, rural women whose circumstances they probably cannot relate to?  More importantly, will judges be better able to empathize with the "generic" woman facing a long wait at an abortion clinic than they can with the poor, rural outliers/others?

Cross-posted to Feminist Legal Theory.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hillary's popularity in the rural, Black South

Debbie Elliott reports for NPR today from Hale County, Alabama, population 15, 184.  More than 58% of that population is Black.  This is in America's "Black Belt," and the headline for the story is "In Alabama's Rural Black Belt, an Uphill Climb for Bernie Sanders."  

Elliott's story features 80-year old Theresa Burroughs, a longtime community leader who participated in the March on Selma and also helped hide Martin Luther King, Jr., when he passed through Greensboro two weeks before his assassination.  She says she will definitely vote for Clinton, who has "no place up to go but president."  Further, Burroughs, comments:
She's been here. She knows us personally. She knows the condition.
By "condition," Burroughs refers to the fact that Hale County is one of the poorest places in the United States.  More than 26% of the population live in poverty.
Most counties in Alabama's black belt have double-digit unemployment, and more than a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line. As farm jobs have dwindled, towns have struggled to lure industry to replace them.
Elliott also talked to Greensboro's young people, specifically some at the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HALO) who are working on their GEDs:
"I just feel like Hillary Clinton would be a good president," says Drewquita Lanier, who is 22 years old, said recently as about a dozen students, most in their 20s, wrapped up a day of testing. They took a break to talk politics. "Not just because she's a woman but she knows a lot that low income people need help. That's why I'm electing her." 
Most of her classmates are undecided, and express frustration that they've been left behind. 
"I don't think we have a voice for us," said Jalisa Travis. 
Raven Sewell wants a candidate who can help break the cycle of poverty. 
"I can say honestly say I'm almost there," Sewell said. 
She's close to earning her high school equivalency diploma. 
"I have my own place to live. I'm working on a car. Some people really trying, they just need an extra hoist," says Sewell. 
Unlike other places where Bernie Sanders has fired up young voters, his message has not reached these rural African-American students. Sewell is surprised to hear that he wants to make college free.

"Now that sounds wonderful," she said.
What isn't clear to me having read the story is what work "rural" is doing for the reporter with this headline.  Are things different in Greensboro, Alabama than in Montgomery, Alabama with respect to support for Hillary?  This headline suggests not.   

Thursday, February 18, 2016

(Scalia's) Death and distance in West Texas

One side story of Justice Antonin Scalia's death that captured media attention this week was the tale of how he came to be declared officially dead.  Scalia died, of course, at a remote West Texas ranch, and when the ranch's owner, John Poindexter, found Scalia's body Saturday morning, Poindexter began to try to reach a local official who could declare the justice's death.

NPR describes what happened in "The Trials of Pronouncing Antonin Scalia Dead in West Texas."  Apparently, a Justice of the Peace or County Judge (chief administrator of county, elected) must pronounce death, but no such officer was readily available in Presidio County, population 6,976, where the ranch was located.  Jeanette Duer, the judge of neighboring Jeff Davis County, explains:  
Our county has 2,400 square miles. We have about 2,400 people. We have one justice of the peace who does the inquest. If she's not available, it falls to me, as county judge.
The NPR story, by journalist Tom Michael, describes the sequence of events on Saturday:
I was reporting from a candidate forum in neighboring Brewster County. Officials from all three counties were in attendance. David Beebe, the justice of the peace for Precinct 1 in Presidio County, was there, too. Shortly after 1 p.m., he received a request to handle an inquest for "a dead body" back in his county. 
The call came from Juanita Bishop, the justice of the peace for Precinct 2, who is nominally closer, but she was at a work-related event more than 120 miles away in Fort Stockton. 
Beebe responded he was also far away, too, busy at the political forum. The deceased wasn't identified. Bishop said she would find an alternate. In this border county, sometimes the dead body is an undocumented migrant. Identification can take weeks; death can wait. 
Bishop contacted the third choice, Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara, who was also unable to make the drive to Cibolo Creek Ranch. Connecting with the county sheriff there, she officially handled the inquest — over the phone — pronouncing Justice Scalia dead just before 2 p.m. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedures allows justices of the peace to pronounce death via phone when deemed reasonable.
This all sounds pretty alien to the four-fifths of out nation's population who live in metropolitan areas of one size or another, but the barrier of distance is a fact of life for folks in rural places--especially the very sparsely populated ones like West Texas and other parts of the western United States.  Michael's story actually begins by observing that West Texas's 
large, sparsely populated counties ... can be a problem when people need county services, especially emergency services — and it doesn't matter if you're an ordinary citizen or a Supreme Court justice.
I find Justice Scalia's death in such a locale ironic given that he was consistently dismissive of the burden of distance in both voting rights and abortion cases--including very recent ones out of Texas.  Read more here and here.  If he was watching from a heavenly perch the Saturday events surrounding pronouncement of his death, maybe he finally "gets" the burden of distance and the lack of services that marks rural communities.  When it comes to death, some of those burdens afflict not only rural locals, but also affluent urban visitors like Scalia himself.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rural Idaho town elects all-Latino city council

NPR reports today on Wilder, Idaho's recent election of the first all-Latino city council in the state.  Wilder, population 1,533, also has a Latino mayor, who was elected last fall.  

Nathan Rott reports with a focus on Ismael Fernandez, a 19-year-old student at the College of Idaho who was one of the city council members elected in November an sworn in last month.  As such, he is one of the youngest elected officials in the state's history.  Rott quotes him:
There needs to be change in Wilder, and just in politics in general. We need to have younger people coming in, so that's why I decided to run.
* * * 
The Latino generation that I'm part of, we're kind of activists and all about empowerment and I think it's very empowering to the Latino community.
As Rott points out, Latina/os are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in Idaho.
Latest census data show that 12 percent of Idaho is Hispanic or Latino. Latinos are also the state's fastest-growing racial group by far, doubling the growth percentage of the state's white population. That growth, [says Margie Gonzalez, executive director for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs], is what's kept a lot of rural Idaho towns, like Wilder, populated and afloat in recent years.
Still, Erica Bernal-Martinez, the deputy executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, notes:  
Many rural cities with large shares of Latino population that have had a significant growth of Latinos in their cities haven't necessarily achieved what folks in Wilder were able to achieve.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Drones deliver contraceptives to women in rural Ghana

Here's the lede for the New York Times Women in the World post:
Inspired by Amazon’s vision of unmanned delivery drones, public health specialists have created Project Last Mile, a scheme that uses drones to deliver contraceptives to women living in remote rural areas in Ghana. Project Last Mile, which is jointly funded by Coca-Cola, UNFPA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development, has been so successful in its mission flying birth control, condoms, and other medical supplies to rural areas in Ghana over the past few months that the program is now set to expand into six other African countries. Governments in Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique have even expressed interest in taking over the program in their countries and paying for it themselves.
The story notes that delivery to rural areas that previously took two days can now be accomplished in just half an hour.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How Burns, Oregon is holding up: on conflict, kindness, and symbolic gestures

Both NPR and the New York Times have reported in the past few days on clashes between locals in Harney County, Oregon, and outsiders who have poured in to protest the killing last week, by federal officials, of LaVoy Finicum, one of those who had been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  (Read more here about the latter).  This excerpt from Martin Kaste's story on NPR sums up the conflict:
Now, people in Burns agree with a lot of what these groups have to say. Locals are tired of the heavy police and FBI presence since the takeover at the refuge, and most people here do think the federal government overreaches, especially when it comes to environmental rules and land use. But they're also sick of outsiders hanging around, trying to start a movement.
But another part of the story really amused me because it reminds me of a practice I associate with my own home town--the fact that every local driver waves (or, more precisely, lifts a finger above the steering wheel, in brief greeting), every other driver s/he meets.  This happens, in my experience, even when the driver doesn't actually know who s/he is waving at.  Indeed, one of my former students wrote a blog post on the topic a few years ago, here.

All of that came to mind when I read Kaste's quote of "local resident" Nancy Fine:
I don't know who to wave to anymore.  You have to kind of look and say, 'Is that a friend or is that someone who doesn't belong or doesn't live here and has come here to make trouble?'  
Fine goes on to say that "one sure way of identifying an outsider is a prominently displayed sidearm. She shoots a scornful glance at a trio of men standing in front of her, their arms crossed, their holsters hanging out."
We all have guns but none of us wear them on our hip and kind of flaunt them around. We consider that extremely rude and ungentlemanly at best.  
Kaste quotes another local woman who says "the community has been flooded in 'testosterone,'" the effects of which are likely to "linger."  One concluded:
We need the outside people to go home so we can start to heal. It's going to be a long, hard process.
Meanwhile, another group of outsiders--the journalists--are commenting on how kind and hospitable residents have been.  The headline of NYT reporter Kirk Johnson's story a few days ago sums it up, "Burns Journal:  An Unwanted Circus Descends, and an Oregon Town Strives to Stay Kind." An excerpt follows:
For the most part, Burns has not stopped being warm and welcoming to outsiders, even as that has become harder to do. If you were going to spend nearly the entire month of January in a town of about 2,000 people — isolated by distance in the high eastern Oregon desert, and often with bad weather to boot — you could do a lot worse. 
“We just decided to be kind,” said Leah Planinz, who owns Glory Days Pizza with her husband, Nick.
Pardon my obvious bias, but that, my friends, is rural America.