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Women’s rights being debated in La. legislature

7th May 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

Since the start of the year, issues related to women’s reproduction have been front and center nationally. Some of these incidents include the uproar over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood, which provides cancer screenings and other routine health services to women around the country. Then there were Newt Gingrich’s comments about Sandra Fluke, who argued to an all-male congressional committee on reproductive health that birth-control pills are also prescribed for therapeutic reasons, and, as such, should be covered by health insurance. And there have been a series of state laws focused on preventing women from terminating pregnancies.

Louisiana is no exception to this discussion, but the state has (or had) bills focusing both on empowering women as well as on restricting their rights to make healthcare decisions. Four bills introduced to the legislature this year covered issues ranging from guaranteeing equal pay for women to mandating that public schools offer comprehensive sex education as well as two bills related to interrupting a pregnancy.

Sen. John Alario, R-LA,, of the West Bank introduced Senate Bill 593, which would make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks of gestation, unless the mother’s life was threatened. Senator Alario did not respond to The Louisiana Weekly’s request for an interview on this topic.

“Nationally, less than 1.4 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks,” Julie Mickelberry of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast told The Louisiana Weekly. Explaining that “one-size fits all legislation” can have unintended consequences, Mickelberry said: “…one of the most tragic things that can happen to a pregnant woman is to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with her pregnancy…This bill completely undermines the abilities of physicians and families to make [relevant] medical decisions.”

Mickelberry pointed to a case in Nebraska where a couple, Danielle and Rob, in their 22nd week of pregnancy suffered severe complications. Their story is available on Youtube. Danielle’s water broke, leaving the fetus with no amniotic fluid to protect it and allow it to continue developing. As a result, when the child was born 10 days later, it died within minutes because her lungs had not formed completely. “These [laws] are affecting women who don’t have any control over what’s going to happen,” Danielle said. “They don’t’ have any choice in how their pregnancy is going to end, and they’re compounding the awfulness of those situations by passing these laws that tie our hands, that tie the hands of the doctors…”

Another bill aimed at preventing abortions comes from State Senator Sharon Weston-Broome who represents a Baton Rouge district. Senate Bill 708 would mandate an ultrasound proceeding when a woman is preparing to abort a pregnancy. As part of the procedure, the physician would have to read a scripted text, something that Mickelberry says ignores the more personal and complex nature of an individual’s health. Additionally, the woman would have to hear the fetal heart beat and would only be able to not see the image on the screen by turning her head.

Weston-Broome did not respond to The Louisiana Weekly’s request for an interview.

“This [bill] suggests that a woman in that position… is taking that decision lightly,” Dr. Lisa Richardson, Executive Director of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, said of SB 708. Ric­hardson also pointed out that the extra cost of the ultrasound procedure would be borne by the patient, which, she said “could be devastating for many people.”

“At the least, the idea is to have a woman have a direct experience of the unborn child,” Richardson went on, “but I believe any woman who’s struggling with these decisions is very aware of the condition that she’s in and would not make a choice like this lightly.”

Bills such as these prompted the creation of a national organization called Unite Women earlier this year, which is estimated to have 38,000 members nationwide. Unite Women organized a rally in Baton Rouge at the end of April to let the legislators know that women are not pleased about the direction they are taking. Ashley Baggett was one of the coordinators for that rally. She estimates that 150 people came out to express their disapproval.

Asked about her feelings about the abortion-related laws, Baggett said: “It makes me feel that women are not valued. It seems that women are valued politically and socially only for their ability to reproduce and be attractive, and we should be beyond that now.”

While public health advocates are dismayed by the ultrasound and 20-week limit laws, they also note that there is positive legislation in the hopper. One of these is House Bill 820, which mandates comprehensive sex education in public schools and was introduced by Rep. Patricia Smith of East Baton Rouge.

“Parents want this,” Richardson said, speaking of reproductive education. “A lot of educators say they wish they had this in their schools because they see the outcomes that could be prevented – or at least could be helped – with more education.” In the most recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) report based on data from 2010, Baton Rouge ranks first in the country in new AIDS infections and New Orleans fifth. Furthermore, Afri­can-Americans are disproportionately affected by the disease, accounting for 43 percent of new AIDS infections nationwide in 2010. The CDC also reports that 46 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in the United States in 2007 were in the Southern region of the country.

“Providing education on how to make healthy choices, reducing risky behavior, abstaining until you’re old enough to deal with the consequences of sexual activity,” are some of the reasons Richard­son listed for mandating a curriculum that focuses not only on the biology of sexual activity, but also on learning the communication skills to handle this aspect of relationships.

Another critical bill for women, which died in an all-male committee before it could reach the Senate floor, is the Equal Pay for Women Act introduced by Democrat Karen Carter Peterson. The bill was aimed at ensuring that male and female government employees receive the same pay for the same work. The text of the bill states that unequal pay “leads to low worker morale, threatens the well-being of citizens of this state, and adversely affects the general welfare.”

In a statement prepared for The Louisiana Weekly, Carter Peterson said: “This bill was brought because of the alarming facts and statistics of the state of women in Louisiana concerning employment, education and wages. The disparity is overwhelming, disheartening and discriminatory.”

Dr. Beth Willinger, a research sociologist who has studied pay disparities in Louisiana for several years, and who compiled statistics for Carter Brown, found that women in Louisiana earn 67 cents for each dollar a man earns. Black women, however, earn only 48 cents for each dollar a White man earns.

According to Willinger, 73 percent of the state’s mothers with children 18-years old or younger are working. “What we find, in Louisiana particularly, we have a very high number of women who are heads of households, considerably more than in the nation at large.” Census data shows that 17.5 percent of the households in Louisiana are headed by a single woman, compared to 13 percent for the country as a whole.

Connecting the dots between these issues, Richardson pointed out that pregnancy is the “number one reason for drop-outs among high school girls, and that has an impact on their economic futures.” She also underlined that while a great deal of energy is being invested into shaping the decisions that women make around maternity, that less attention is being given to the means women have to sustain themselves and their families. “We’re not trying to make the options as great as possible, including economic options.”

This article was originally published in the May 7, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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