Tagged: women

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Did You Hear the One About the Alaska Legislator Who Said …

We have folks who try to get pregnant in this state so that they can get a free trip to the city, and we have folks who want to carry their baby past the point of being able to have an abortion in this state so that they can have a free trip to Seattle.

One might think, at first blush, that this is a bad joke.  Yet this quote actually did fall from the lips of Alaska state representative David Eastman of Wasilla (Anchorage suburb, of Sarah Palin fame) last week, in conversation with the Associated Press.  Eastman subsequently made similar comments to other media outlets.  Bear with me as I bracket Eastman’s impeachment of women’s character, returning to it below.

Like me, you are probably wondering about this “free trip” thing, given that the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal funding for abortions.  Turns out, according to the AP story, that the “Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs.”  Mighty progressive, if you ask me, not least because many women in Alaska must travel vast distances to reach an abortion provider, given the size of the state.  And this can be mighty expensive and involve multiple plane journeys, even within Alaska.  (Bear in mind that the villages around Bethel and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are among many Alaska places not accessible by road.) Ditto for those who must travel for other medical services, which the Alaska court has wisely recognized.

Indeed, speaking of distance, the dust-up created by Mr. Eastman reminds me of one of the most knuckle-headed things I’ve ever seen a judge say about the “undue burden” standard under Planned Parenthood of S.E. Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992):

A woman in Alaska, for example, could be required to travel 800 miles to get to an abortion clinic merely because she lives in one place and the nearest abortion clinic is on the other side of the state. But that certainly doesn’t constitute anything even approaching an undue burden.

The judge who wrote this was Dee Benson (now a senior district judge), and the case was Utah Women’s Clinic v. Leavitt, 844 F. Supp. 1482 (D. Utah 1994) (discussed here).  Why the Utah judge thought it appropriate or necessary to use an example from Alaska rather than Utah is unclear.  I suppose he was looking for the most extreme example of distance he could find–to then make the point that such travel would still not trigger a constitutional problem.  Given that Alaska is the largest state in terms of land area, Judge Benson necessarily turned to “The Last Frontier” to illustrate his point.

Interesting in light of this point is the fact that the second largest state in the union, Texas, became the subject of the latest round of litigation over abortion restrictions, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.  Of course, distance ultimately loomed very large in relation to the Court’s assessment of the undue burden standard there because women would have been challenged to travel as far as 550 miles each way (from El Paso to San Antonio) to reach an abortion provider had the Court not struck down Texas H.B. 2.  Read more here and here.  Distance as an undue burden is also a reminder of my recent exchange with Prof. Carol Sanger of  Columbia Law  on this blog regarding  the significance of spatiality/geography/rurality as it relates to abortion access.

But let me return now to the issue most directly implicated by Eastman’s comments,  which is less about the burden of distance (and therefore the “situation of women”)–which the state of Alaska has pragmatically taken care of, at least in part–and more about the character of women.  The AP story, by Becky Bohrer, includes not only helpful background for us on abortion availability in Alaska and, for late-term abortions, in Seattle, she also fills us in on the furor Eastman’s comments have generated:

In a speech on the House floor Friday, Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome said Eastman’s comments were unacceptable and said he hoped Eastman would apologize.

“It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and the emotional pain of getting an abortion just so that they could get a free trip to Anchorage,” Foster said.

Most of the women who live in villages that Foster represents are Alaska Native and feel Eastman’s comments were directed toward them, Foster said. Many Alaska communities are not connected to a road system and smaller communities often have limited health services that necessitate travel to larger communities for care.

Two other “rural lawmakers,” demanded a public apology from Eastman, and Rep. Geran Tarr of Anchorage said she might “seek a motion to censure Eastman,” calling his comments “deeply offensive, racist in nature, and misogynistic.”

It is encouraging to see other legislators standing up for Alaska Natives and other rural populations.  And it also brings me back to the really outrageous part of what Eastman said–that women might purposefully get pregnant so that they can have a day out on the town, a freebie trip to the bright lights to get an abortion … and then tie on some shopping or a fancy meal, maybe even a jaunt up the Space Needle. This outrageous suggestion ties perfectly into Sanger’s over-arching point in About Abortion:  Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century:  women take abortion seriously–and we should presume they can make good decisions about it for themselves.  We should certainly not presume–as Eastman suggests–that they will get pregnant willy-nilly to “earn” a frolic in the city.  Insulting, misogynist and racist, indeed.

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The Contraception Mandate Part II

In my last post, I argued that the requirement that religiously affiliated organizations include contraception in their health insurance plans does not violate the Free Exercise Clause. That’s not such a hard argument to make given the Employment Division v. Smith rule that neutral laws of general applicability are constitutional, no matter what kind of burden they may create for religious practices.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on the other hand, is easier to violate. RFRA was passed in reaction to Employment Division v. Smith. Congress wanted to restore the more demanding (at least on paper) pre-Smith test for religious liberty claims. The Supreme Court struck down RFRA  as applied to the states but not as applied to the federal government. Under RFRA, a federal law cannot impose a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion unless it passes strict scrutiny.

Saving the question of whether the contraception mandate imposes a substantial burden for another post, would it pass strict scrutiny? Does the contraception mandate advance a compelling state interest in a narrowly tailored way? It is not hard to come up with compelling reasons why women who do not want to become pregnant should have access to contraception. Women’s ability to control their reproduction is essential to their wellbeing, their bodily integrity, and their ability to participate as equals in the social, economic, and political life of the nation. In fact, the failure to cover contraception may well amount to sex discrimination if a health insurance plan covers all basic preventive care except for pregnancy-related preventive care like contraception. (While pregnancy discrimination is not considered sex discrimination for equal protection purposes thanks to Geduldig v. Aiello, it is sex discrimination for Title VII purposes thanks to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.) Promoting women’s health, liberty, equality, and equal access to health care are all compelling state interests.

Nevertheless, at least one court has concluded that the contraception mandate was not motivated by a compelling interest because it contains too many exceptions, such as the ones for grandfathered plans and small employers. So, while the court acknowledged that “the promotion of public health” is generally a compelling state interest, it held that “any such argument is undermined by the existence of numerous exceptions to the preventive care coverage mandate. . . . A law cannot be regarded as protecting an interest of the highest order when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly vital interest unprohibited.” I disagree. The number of exceptions might matter if there were some question about whether the state’s interest really was compelling or not. If we are not sure about the importance of uniform appearance among police officers, numerous exceptions to grooming requirements might lead to the conclusion that it is not as important as the state claims. However, such exceptions should not matter when the state’s goals have long been recognized as compelling — and surely we are past the point of debating whether promoting women’s liberty and equality and preventing sex discrimination are compelling state interests.

Perhaps, then, it could be argued that the law is not narrowly tailored. How strict the tailoring must be under RFRA in not clear. If RFRA is meant to reinstate the pre-Smith test as practiced, then it is not very demanding, since the Supreme Court rarely found that laws failed strict scrutiny in Free Exercise Clause challenges. In any case, one argument that should be rejected is that the law is not sufficiently tailored because the government could provide contraception instead. But that can’t be right. Imagine a bookstore that refused admittance to Hispanics. Or imagine an employer whose insurance covered cancer screenings for white employees but not Asian ones. Now imagine the bookstore or employer arguing that a law banning race discrimination in places of public accommodation or in the provision of employment benefits fails strict scrutiny because the state could sell the books or provide the benefits instead. Such a claim is a distortion of strict scrutiny and should fail.

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The Contraception Mandate Part I

The Affordable Care Act is changing the health care landscape. Among the changes is that employers that provide health insurance must cover preventive services, including contraception. Although the requirement does not apply to religious organizations, it does apply to religiously affiliated ones. This “contraception mandate” has generated a huge outcry from some religious leaders, most notably the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They insist that forcing Catholic hospitals, schools, or charities to include contraception in their employee insurance plans violates religious liberty.

It doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t violate the Free Exercise Clause. After Employment Division v. Smith, neutral laws of general applicability are constitutional, regardless of the burden they may impose on religious practices. Indeed, the law upheld in Smith banned a religious sacrament. But it was neutral, in that it did not intentionally target religion, and it was generally applicable, in that it was neither riddled with exceptions nor grossly underinclusive. The regulation requiring employers who provide health insurance to include contraception in that coverage is likewise a neutral law of general applicability.

While a recent Supreme Court decision (Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC) carved out an exception to this “neutral-generally-applicable-laws-do-not-violate-the-Free-Exercise-Clause” rule, it does not apply here. This exception — which holds that religious institutions are immune from neutral, generally applicable anti-discrimination laws when they are sued by their ministers — was designed to protect churches’ ability to pick their leaders without interference from the state. However, the provision by religiously-affiliated organizations of health insurance to their employees, many of whom do not belong to the same faith as their religious employer, clearly does not involve ministers or internal church governance. In short, there is no valid Free Exercise Claim.

What about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? Stay tuned.