PA Senate Bill 3 vs. women’s rights

Can people of all views agree on some facts? No one looks forward to having an abortion; anyone who has had one doesn’t want to have another; and the national abortion rate declined by half between 1981 and 2014 (the last year with data) and is at its lowest since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision (NPR).

In our own state, “there was a 12% decline in the abortion rate in Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2014, from 15.1 to 13.3 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age” (Guttmacher Institute). But the proponents of setting rules for women never rest.

Since federal policies on matters of civil rights are being incrementally neutralized, the states are having to advance on their own in areas like education, policing, gun violence prevention, redrawing electoral districts, environment, energy, health care, and abortion.

Pennsylvania has been engaged in a long struggle to find out whether, with regard to social issues, it belongs in the Northeast or Southeast of the US. This is why it remains a real swing state, because it is vast and varied and very capable of contradicting itself not only from one year to the next but also from one county to the next. That’s not a bad thing; it means that all Pennsylvanians need to pay attention and every election counts. The 2016 presidential campaigns certainly paid attention to us.

Just for background: states were free to forbid contraception until the US Supreme Court ruled otherwise for married people in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and for non-married people until Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972. Some state laws against non-married sex remained on the books (though little enforced) until after the Virginia case Martin v. Ziherl (2005).

Right now, contraception is protected by PA law: “The Commonwealth shall not interfere with the use of medically appropriate methods of contraception or the manner in which medically appropriate methods of contraception are provided” (title 18, sect. 3208.1.1). But laws can change far more easily than constitutions.

Those who think “it can’t happen here” just need to revisit American history and also check out futuristic visions like Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Senate Bill 3, which would move state abortion policy from restrictive to oppressive, has already (with no public hearing) passed the PA Senate 32-18. Chesco’s senator Andy Dinniman (D-19) voted against the bill; senators Tom Killion (R-19) and John Rafferty (R-44, a co-sponsor of the bill) voted for it.

Either those 32 legislators and their allies in the PA House are comfortable with taking more and more control of women’s private lives or they are posturing to their most motivated constituents and donors, or both. Those supporting SB 3 doubtless will keep on their current path until all abortion is banned; and if they succeed in that, the most zealous of them will continue right on to cut down on or eliminate contraception use—all ultimately depending on the PA and US Supreme Courts.





In recent rallies in West Chester (3/11/17 photo above), women have described their need to have an abortion after discovering a fetus was deformed and even unviable. Often such conditions are diagnosed after 20 weeks; a woman in that regrettable situation would not be able to terminate her pregnancy if SB3 becomes law.

SB3 would make abortions illegal at “20 or more weeks gestational age” (currently 24 weeks) — not a lot of time to discover and confirm pregnancy, get medical tests and advice, consult others, and make a difficult decision.

Also, SB3 would make D&E (dilation and evacuation), the safest and most common abortion method in the 2nd-trimester (which begins at 13 weeks) illegal at any time unless a physician certifies it is necessary for a patient to survive or not lose important organ function. (Loss of minor organ functions, whichever they may be, is apparently not taken into account.)

According to the Guttmacher Institute: “Eleven percent of abortions in the United States take place after the first trimester, and national estimates suggest that D&E accounts for roughly 95% of these procedures” and the proposed D&E ban “would force providers to substitute the ideology of lawmakers for their own professional medical judgment and the preferences of their patients.”

The same site shows that restrictions on first-semester abortions are pushing some to the second trimester—exactly what one would expect anti-abortion proponents to avoid if they were really interested in “fetal pain.” No surprise here: placing first-trimester obstacles in the way of abortions both delays them and causes women to seek out other, often less safe than in a recognized clinic or hospital (Slate).

Also no surprise: “as abortion becomes more difficult, the birth rate increases: Study finds increase in birth rates after Texas’ Planned Parenthood funding cuts” (Women’s Health Policy Report, 2/4/16). And that in turn increases the financial burden on both women, state agencies, and Medicaid. The new CBO contraception control would result in several thousand more births at a cost of $21,000,000 this year to the Medicaid budget.

Banning D&E would mean abortion providers would need to use other methods and would place more women at risk. In fact, D&E became the prevalent second-trimester method only after the US Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on the preferred D&X method ten years ago. SB3 is part of a long process to chip away at all abortion rights.

The vote in the Republican-dominated PA House will be a close call—not whether there is a majority, but whether there are enough votes there and in the Senate to override Governor Wolf’s expected veto. All supporters of women’s rights should resolve right now to contact their PA representatives in Harrisburg and to vote in the 2018 election, which could reshape the political scene in Pennsylvania.

Don’t women vote? Don’t a majority of Americans believe in abortion rights? Yes: as of 2016, public support for legal abortion as been on the rise since 2009 and 59% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to 39% who believe it should be illegal in all or most cases (Pew Research Center, 11/3/16, source of the chart below).

But anti-abortion voters are more likely to be single-issue voters, and Pennsylvania electoral districts have been effectively gerrymandered to promote conservative positions. The PA Senate and House are not representative and do not reflect citizens’ opinions.


PS Note on current PA law

I wondered whether everything we read in the media about current PA law on abortion is true, so I studied the relevant sections of PA Statutes Title 18 at Title 18, significantly, treats abortion not as “Women’s rights” but under “Crimes and Offenses.”

Before 24 weeks gestation (out of about 38 weeks average to delivery), abortion is permitted if the referring or operating physician deems it necessary “in the light of all factors (physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age) relevant to the well-being of the woman” (sect. 3204). Presumably, those factors would include rape, incest, incapacity to care for a child, and the like.

Except in a medical emergency, the physician must conduct a personal consultation to inform the women of various factors, including risks and alternatives, at least 24 hours in advance (sect. 3204; SB 3 would add an “in-person” requirement).

Except in a medical emergency, an unemancipated woman under age 18 must receive a parent’s permission or ask a judge to determine that she “is mature and capable of giving informed consent to the proposed abortion, and has, in fact, given such consent” or that abortion is “in her best interests” (sect. 3206).

A married woman must provide a statement (sect. 3209) to the state that she has notified her spouse, except if the pregnancy is not by the spouse, the spouse cannot be found, the pregnancy results from spousal sexual assault, or such notice could result in “the infliction of bodily injury” upon her. (This must be a difficult determination for a physician who is not trained in non-obstetric fields.)

After 24 weeks (sect. 3211), abortion is illegal except “to prevent either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.” The law gives no consideration to any other factors such as the condition and viability of the fetus. Abortion after 24 weeks must occur in a hospital; Planned Parenthood is not even in this discussion. This is not really abortion but induced labor in a health emergency; a second physician must be present “taking all reasonable steps necessary to preserve the child’s life and health.”

The physician must fill out a complex report to the state in many parts, including items such as how gestational age was determined, whether the spouse was notified and if not, why not. (So much for “small government”!)

Public funding of abortions in PA is allowed only to avert the woman’s death or when pregnancy results from rape or incest (sect 3215). (Federal funds do not pay for abortion.)

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The HR 610 discussion and my own notes on education

With 45 readers’ comments to date from readers on “H.R. 610 Choices in Education Act: a disaster if it passes in Congress,” I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to post their views. You have contributed a lot of good information to a critical debate. The lines of discussion are pretty clear: what are the merits of public schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling? And what should our federal and state governments do as a consequence?

I think all those forms of education have their place. But I like to start thinking from the legal underpinning: the PA state constitution says under the header “Public School System” that “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

So whatever other options exist, the state must “maintain and support” public education. A recent report said the loss to public schools is about $5,000 for each student that enrolls in a charter school. That is a problem, when the public is financing two competing school systems and one takes away from the other.

Charter schools were set up in PA to innovate. Schools specializing in, say, arts and performance fill an innovative niche, but charter schools that just compete for public school business do not.

The state constitution talks about public schools, not a free market supported by taxpayers. Just as a curiosity: that free market includes the charter chain run by the Islamist scholar Fethullah Gülen, whom the president of Turkey accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt there from his home here in Pennsylvania.

Public schools are under the control of democratically elected school boards. Charter and private schools are not, and some are profit-making institutions, which on the backs of taxpayers seems to me unsavory.

Private schools definitely fill a need; but so-called vouchers (which in fact we already have in PA, through an end run around the constitution) siphon off money from public schools to private ones.  I think those PA vouchers, which intercept tax payments before they reach the state treasury, are improper.

I agree that some students do gain from being home-schooled. But I’d like to see a demonstrated need based on each student’s own learning program, not a preference based on parents’ beliefs. Some homeschooling involves charter school support; fine, as long as it works for a student that genuinely needs both.

Some teachers should not be teaching; some charter school operators should not have anything to do with education; and some parents are not qualified to instruct their young. This is why we have public school systems with professional standards and leadership ultimately depending on an elected school board.

And what’s the role of government? I didn’t care for No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, because I thought they were too centralizing and that imposing multiple choice tests from Washington was a serious error.

I am more comfortable with states setting an educational path and I’d  like to see Pennsylvania working toward paying about half of  the costs of  K-12 public education, which was Governor Rendell’s goal. The PA state contribution is now foundering around one-third. But just beware; whenever you talk about whether the state contribution is going up or down,  you have to specify if  you are including pensions or only actual educational expenses.

One reason charter schools can afford so many ads is that they get contributions from private donors. I wouldn’t want public school systems to become dependent on charity, but given the current challenges, I wonder if they could raise more of their own funding, at lest for some beneficial extras, from donations. The problem then becomes, of course, that richer school districts can raise more donations as well as more tax revenue.

That is why the state needs what is known as a “fair funding formula,” which would take into account districts’ demographics, resources, number of special needs and gifted students, special missions, and the like.

But good luck right now in getting the General Assembly to work out fair funding for anything!

PS Back to HR 610: you might be interested in this download from Parents Across America: voucherstudies3-17

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Representative government and revolution

Through history, governments mainly promoted the power of a ruling family and aristocracy. The theory on which our country was founded, that government should represent the people and their interests, really was pretty radical, although derived from prior English thinking.

Actually the theory was too radical for the 18th century: our Founders set up a system in which basically only white men who owned property could vote and govern. Our national history since then has been a long effort to bring others to full participation.

Historians point out that when economic and political power are misaligned, unrest and even revolution can follow. Thus, the rising influence of the commercial class in 17th-century England and 18th-century France caused conflicts that brought about the unthinkable: the deposition and execution of two reigning monarchs. And exactly 100 years ago Russia, unable to realign power to write the end to the legacy of serfdom and appease its own rising classes, likewise overthrew a long-ruling dynasty.

The current decade shows the opposite pattern: not a rising middle class but a declining middle class. Those Americans and Europeans who felt left behind by change, the scantily employed, those marginalized by inadequate education and global trade lashed out against social change, immigrants, the financial industry, declining standards of living, and the political in-group they held responsible for unwelcome changes. Angry voters have been looking back to the good old days, however they may imagine those to be.

Democrats often lament: why do people vote against their own interests? Why would voters threatened by change cast their lot in with an unscrupulous New York billionaire?

Insecure people confused by events choose desperate solutions. When they feel government caters to others than themselves, they revolt, as in the states, including Pennsylvania, that made the difference in the 2016 electoral college.

Americans expect to be taken seriously. When we have an issue on the municipal level, we complain to our friends, we write a letter or go to a meeting, we try to sort it out with people pretty much like ourselves, basically our own neighbors who have stepped forward to help our town run its services, and we usually feel that democracy is working, locally at least.

But our political life has widening circles of distance from ourselves: municipality, county, state House and Senate, US House and Senate, state and national court systems, the presidency. The bigger the district, the more remote the office-holder seems, the less like ourselves and people we know. The most successful politicians have the ability to narrow that perception of distance.

A lot of Americans felt George Bush would be a good person to walk their dog or share a beer. Obama made many Americans feel their turn had come. And in 2016, desperate people preferred the disruptive candidate who seemed to “feel their pain” and, ironically, not the spouse of the president who practically trademarked that expression. Many Trump voters thought of themselves as revolutionaries trying to take down a hostile regime; and it is no coincidence that Steve Bannon, the man often termed Trump’s Rasputin, has described himself as a disrupter and a Leninist.

Those voters betting all on change will be disappointed once again, of course, but they don’t know it yet. Our system has managed to align economic and political power pretty well, because increasingly, the wealthy who control economic life control political life as well. The final test will be whether the current rules will be able to align perception and reality, not of course by changing reality but by altering people’s feelings about it. through marketing, propagandizing, and tweeting.

The exceptionalism of our democracy lies in inducing people to vote against their own interests and even their own beliefs. Who would have thought the party of “family values” would support Trump?

Today’s “resistance” movement reflects a truly radical idea: that government should represent the actual people who live in our country, in all our diversity of race, religion, socio-economic level, or any other trait. The Resisters believe that our representatives should meet with us in our own communities and listen to us, or else that people more attuned to ourselves, all across the country, should take their places. Thus, everyone should participate, vote, organize, let their views be known, promote candidates, and run for office.

Our country could do a lot worse than trying out that concept, which broadens the Founders’ concept of citizen-farmers doubling as part-time legislators to represent real, un-gerrymandered human communities. If democracy is to carry on, it needs faith that a majority of people can lead the way, making good decisions for the whole social organism.

When Americans feel that people like ourselves are representing us at all levels of government, our system will reach the balance that it has long sought between the individual and the communal, the local and the national.

E pluribus unum, as it were.


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H.R. 610 Choices in Education Act: a disaster if it passes in Congress

A pro-education rally at 21 West Market St. in West Chester tomorrow Friday Feb. 17, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is specifically directed against House Bill 610, which was introduced in Washington last month.

The bill’s own short description does not do justice to the damage this bill would cause:


This Congress seems determined to undo all the beneficial functions of government, such as promoting public health, protecting the environment, reducing gun violence, or furthering public education.

The majority party is against “choice” until it suits them to use the word as cover for their own purposes. Newly installed (by a vote of 51-50) Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be very happy with this bill, since she believes that “government sucks.” it will suck even more if HR 610 ever  becomes law.

Title I of this bill would negate all federal functions regarding K-12 education except to give block grants to “qualified” states in proportion to the number of “eligible” children.

In order to qualify, states must agree to distribute each child’s share of these federal funds to parents for use in any public schools, private schools (of which over 80% are religious), or home-schooling.

So, students in rich districts and poor districts, in families of all economic levels, in religious and non-religious schools, special needs and super-gifted students, students with parents realistically capable of home-schooling them or not–all would get the same cut of Secretary DeVos’s pie.

How about students without a fixed parent or guardian or even a stable address? The bill doesn’t seem to do much for them.

Does the bill set any criteria for home-schooling? No, and even though states may have a say, it isn’t hard to guess that a lot of parents will decide they would rather collect the funds than send their child to a school of any sort. Payments “shall not exceed the cost of home-schooling the child,” but who could possibly know?

Does the bill refer to any standards for schools to meet? No.

Does the  bill require the child to be making some recognizable progress? No, just be “aged 5 to 17, inclusive.” So a student age 5-17, even if repeating one grade 3 times, qualifies, but a high school senior aged 18, for whatever reason such as earlier serious illness, doesn’t.

Don’t federal and states standards cover some of these things? Maybe, but none are referenced in the bill.  In a year when you can see regulations falling like dominoes, you can bet that once the door is opened by HR  610, no one will dare turn off the money.

And then there is a constitutional issue.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has been taken (until 2017, at least) to prevent the US government from subsidizing religious institutions. This bill gets around that by saying that the funds go to the parents, who turn it over to the religious school. But the magnitude of this scheme, and the potential to create more religious schools and shut down non-religious schools, will surely interest the court system.

Similarly on the state level. The PA Constitution I.3 says: “…no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”

If our state and school districts are obliged to distribute federal money– just to give an example much in the news these days– to subsidize the extensive charter school network of  Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen (a PA resident accused of orchestrating the recent failed coup d’état in Turkey), does that violate the state constitution? This could be interesting.

Similarly, PA Constitution III.15 says; “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.” If the state asks for federal money under HR 610, is it “raising” money? In my view, it would certainly be violating the obvious intent that public funds should not subsidize sectarian schools. Of course, proponents say they would be subsidizing parents, not schools, even though the relevant section of the  bill is titled “Distribution to Schools.”

And then, just as bad, is Title II, called with another counterfactual flourish the “No Hungry Kids Act.” This part would overturn a 2012 Department of Agriculture rule designed to set healthy standards and calorie limits for school food.

All  we have to do is quote the official summary of this bill to see how nefarious this part is, describing the rule to be scrapped:

“In general, the rule requires schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat free milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals; and meet children’s nutritional needs within their caloric requirements.”

In sum, House Bill 610 is a catastrophe and if our representatives in Congress don’t want to talk about it, their constituents have to make them.

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More “times that try men’s souls”

As Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” And women’s and children’s souls as well, he might have added. Those of us whose souls will be tried are a cross-section of our country and will become more numerous as the next few years unfold.

But this country, which was just coming into existence in Paine’s time, has been through much worse than Donald Trump. Buck up, Americans!

The Battle of the Brandywine (that other 9/11 disaster), Valley Forge, the Civil War, the great 20th-century depression, Pearl Harbor–those names will continue to awe and challenge us long after we have survived one disturbed individual in a position of leadership, whose unpredictable impulses will soon have to be restrained by men and women of good will and of all political persuasions who honor our national traditions.

We must resist Trumpism in our personal and political lives, but we must never despair or doubt the future. Our democracy has always been an ongoing creation, the quest for a “more perfect union.” We are all part of that effort, every day, whether we realize it or not.

In Abraham Lincoln’s words spoken in our own state in 1863, we are still today “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; and we are still “testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The next few years can give us a new consciousness of what we are and what we can be. We know what Liberty is; we proclaim that all people are created equal. We can act more in accordance with our principles when we see the contrary beliefs, the long delusional undercurrent of our history, openly held up in public life.

Beginning January 20, it will be time to start to take our country back, in the historical sense of becoming truer to our origins and founding principles, extrapolated over time, than we ever have been before.

Declaration_independenceOf course this newish nation can still endure. On July 4, 1776, our Founders declared: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” That is the real American exceptionalism: that ordinary people step forward to take responsibility for the common welfare.

We have done it before and we can do it again. But it does mean we all have to do more than complain to our friends, read and write  blogs, and boycott Trump-affiliated brands and stores.

[From Wikimedia Commons: John Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. The original hangs in the US Capitol rotunda.]

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Yes, Children, there is a Congress but…

December 24, 2016, evening

Dear Children,

It has come to our attention that you may be wondering if there is a United States Congress.

“Why,” some of you are asking, “Should we believe in you when you don’t bring us any presents or do anything nice for us?”

Some of you are wondering if we really exist when you or children just like you go hungry at night, fall sick and can’t see a doctor,  aren’t getting the education you need, and are even being shot at by deranged people in malls and movie theaters.

Please, dear Children, be patient. Some day, you will understand how difficult it is to change anything where we work. We need to run everything by our donors and sponsors, and look at public opinion polls, and see what our party leaders say.

Those of you who, some day, become politicians and millionaires like us will understand better when you are our age.

And then, there are two of us, the House and the Senate, like your Mommy and Daddy, for those of you who have them. We need to agree with each other before we can do anything. You know how that is, not easy. Can’t you just go to your rooms and let us work on it?

You know how it is when you go to the playground and kids start quarreling about their toys and throwing sand at each other. Please believe us, it isn’t easy to play nice in the sandbox. The other guy is going to have to spend more at the eye doctor’s than we are, so there!

Although we aren’t giving you much of anything this year, or any year for that matter, we want you to know that we’ll always be there for you, and our thoughts and prayers are with you. And as soon as you turn 18, we’ll be sending you lots of mail.

With love,

Your Adults in the US Congress

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Media and politics

Who said this and when?

“Today television news is watched more often than people read
newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or
gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy.
With television you just sit – watch – listen. The thinking is done
for you.”

That was Roger Ailes, till recently president of Fox News Channel,
way back when he was working for the Nixon administration.

Since then, conventional wisdom has been that television ads were the
prime way to influence pre-election audiences, at least in a larger district such as the presidency.

Accordingly, television was the focus of big Clinton campaign expenditures–a good example of fighting the previous battle.

Meanwhile, Trump was preparing his Facebook game, and putting Clinton on the defensive by tweeting insults and spreading revelations with the cooperation of James Comey, Julian Assange, and the Russian team.

Trump was jumping on the Palin bus by attacking the mainstream media and the Clinton team was standing in middle of the road.

Trump made the George Bush II administration look like amateurs in the creation of an alternate media reality.

Will 2020 candidates still be relying on inventiveness, Facebook and Twitter? Or will some whole new strategy and vehicle be conveying the successful candidate’s message?

And the weightiest question is: will voters learn how to see through news hoaxes and unfulfillable promises? Without better political literacy, our future will be greatly diminished.

On the positive side, perhaps Americans aren’t as lazy as Roger Ailes thought; voters will have a good opportunity to get an education in political realities over the months and years to come.

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