Friday, June 26, 2009

People of faith should be protected from discrimination

Amidst the fireworks, picnics, and parades, the upcoming Fourth of July holiday gives us an opportunity to reflect on the truly radical direction our country’s founders took 233 years ago. The right to freely practice one’s religion of choice was near the top of the priority list for the American revolutionaries.

The founders understood what it meant to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. In the First Amendment protection for religious liberty, James Madison, one of the key authors of our Constitution, intended “to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

Fast forward to today, 233 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 222 years after the final drafting of our Constitution. Today the great debate over religious liberty continues to rage. There is a constant struggle over where to draw the line between religious freedom and other civil rights, including reproductive healthcare for women and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, and many organizations claim to advocate for religious liberty.

That’s why it was so shocking to hear Randall Wenger, Chief Counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), tell a statewide audience on Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) that religion should not be a protected class under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), the commonwealth’s non-discrimination law. On PCN’s Call-In Show on May 28, Mr. Wenger stated, “I think that we should be prepared to take a new look at this law, and I don’t think that religion needs the protection of government in order to survive.”

Mr. Wenger was on TV to demonstrate his opposition to House Bill 300, which would amend the PHRA to include protections on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression when he made this statement to a statewide viewing audience.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania vigorously disagrees with Mr. Wenger’s position. And one can’t help but question whether or not his employers at the Family Institute agree. (He did state on the show that this opinion was his own and not necessarily that of PFI.)

We cannot ignore that our country has a history of religious discrimination. Decades ago, Catholics were often the target of ire for hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. It was a big deal when the country elected John F. Kennedy in 1960, our first (and only) Catholic president.

Discrimination against Jewish Americans has occurred throughout our history, even to this day. In 2005, the ACLU of Delaware defended a Jewish family that faced down a belligerent school board and community. When the family’s oldest child graduated in 2004 as the only Jewish student in her class, a Christian pastor prayed at her graduation “for one specific student” and asked God “be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus' name.” At a school board meeting, the daughter read a statement on behalf of her younger brother, who said, “I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy.” Residents in attendance at the meeting told the boy, who was in sixth grade at the time, to “take your yarmulke off.”

Law-abiding, peaceful Muslim Americans face hostility on a regular basis. Even some members of the state House of Representatives have shown open hostility towards Muslims. Last year, a simple House resolution to thank a Muslim group for holding their national convention in Pennsylvania never got a vote because, according to one state representative, Muslims don’t believe that Jesus Christ is God.

There can be little doubt that this existing tension over religion translates into discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. In 1955, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers recognized the need to protect Pennsylvanians from this form of discrimination and passed the PHRA.

Our leaders were right to ensure that people are not denied a job or a home simply based on their religious belief. James Madison was right to strive to stem the bloody religious strife of Europe from touching the United States. And the ACLU will continue to defend the precious right to freely express one’s beliefs, free of government entanglement and free from discrimination.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Animal Planet

Human usually want to distance themselves from nature and distinguish themselves from animals. Interestingly enough, when it comes to LGBT civil rights, opponents are suddenly in a rush to get back to our roots in the jungles and on the savannahs, arguing that we should not grant equal rights to gays and lesbians because homosexuality is “unnatural” or “against nature.” (Ironically, many of these same people will argue that we have no roots in nature when it comes to the issue of teaching evolution in public school science classes…but that’s another story.)

For example, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property – a nonprofit organization with its national headquarters in Spring Grove, PA (a mere 12 miles from the site of the aforementioned “other story”) – lists as number 2 in its “Top Ten Reasons Why Homosexual Marriage Is Harmful and Must Be Opposed” that “It Violates Natural Law.” “Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings,” their flyer states. “It is a relationship rooted in human nature and thus governed by natural law…A man and a woman wanting to marry may be different in their characteristics: one may be black, the other white; one rich, the other poor; or one tall, the other short. None of these differences are insurmountable obstacles to marriage. The two individuals are still man and woman, and thus the requirements of nature are respected. Same-sex ‘marriage’ opposes nature.”

Wrong again.

The Associated Press recently reported on a male-male penguin couple that are raising an abandoned chick as their own at the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany. This pair is one of three male-male pairs of penguins at that zoo alone that have attempted to mate with each other.

This is not the first story I have heard about homosexual behavior in animals, so I clicked on a few of the related stories to find out more. Turns out that in 2006, the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway, opened a year-long exhibit entitled “Against Nature?” that focused on this subject.

According to an exhibition statement, “Homosexuality is a common and widespread phenomenon in the animal world. Not only short-lived sexual relationships, but even long lasting partnerships; partnerships that may last a lifetime.” Homosexual behavior has been observed in 1,500 species and is well document in 500 of these, including giraffes, various types of apes, right whales, flamingos, black swans, walruses, dolphins, and many others. The exhibit said that although this phenomenon has often been dismissed because it does not lead directly to species continuation, homosexuality may be evolutionarily adaptive in some instances – for example, ape species that use homosexual contact to form vital bonds within the tribe that are necessary if they are later to find a reproductive partner, or flamingo pairs that are able to defend a much larger territory with two adult males than a male-female pair could, making more resources available to the chicks they are raising and allowing them to support a larger number of young.

So why haven’t most people ever heard of this? Apparently researchers are reluctant to engage in focused study or publicize research on this topic because of the negative reactions they know will be forthcoming from anti-gay groups. Linda Wolfe, chair of the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University, told LifeScience that she has even been offered data by other researchers who didn’t want to publish it under their own names.

Of course, human beings have civil rights that do not apply to the animal kingdom (how can you have freedom of speech if you do not have a spoken language?), and the LGBT community is every bit as entitled to them as the rest of us…but if you insist on bringing up the animal kingdom, well, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Becca in Harrisburg

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is Specter Dumping Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs?

The ACLU’s Clara Bell Duvall Project has long been battling the tidal wave of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in public schools. Until very recently, the federal government had been battling right back by funding them. These programs have been proven to misinform students about the realities of sexuality and sexual health, often using religion instead of science and discriminating against LGBT youth.

Here in PA, our very own Sen. Arlen Specter has been a master at securing earmarks for these disastrous programs. In 2003, Specter was the first (later becoming the only) senator to earmark funding for AOUM as state after state slashed funding. In fact, from 2005-2009, Specter earmarked nearly $8 million dollars, only fueling the raging storm.

This year, after Specter switched parties, we wondered what would happen to his appropriations requests. After doing some digging, we discovered that Sen. Specter (D-PA) was not planning to earmark any of his FY2010 appropriations money for the same AOUM programs that Sen. Specter (R-PA) had so eagerly given in previous years. A call to his appropriations staffer in D.C. confirmed our find. She explained that due to the declining economic situation, Specter had received an increase in the number of requests for appropriations. Apparently, the Senator needed to shift funding over to hospitals and universities. Hmm. Well, whatever the reason, we’re happy he’s moved on…

We hope this isn’t a mere dalliance, but actually a commitment to a new relationship. Perhaps he’ll start his wooing by co-sponsoring the REAL (Responsible Education About Life) Act, which calls for sex ed programs that are medically accurate, age-appropriate, and scientifically based. After all, President Obama has already cut abstinence-only-until-marriage funding out of his proposed budget for next year. Maybe this time around, our legislators will start adding programs that do work instead of just eliminating those that don’t.

Ruth and Dina in Philadelphia

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Doctor's Perspective on Dr. Tiller's Murder

Jennifer Chuang was the chapter leader for Medical Students for Choice at Temple University. She has worked closely with the Duvall Project, and is currently on her way to completing her residency. This is her response to the murder of Dr. Tiller.

I am saddened, angry, and heartbroken over the murder of Dr. George Tiller. I remember meeting him at a conference during my first year of medical school in 2001. I was facing a conflicting time in my career decision making. Do I follow what is safe and easy and make little stir? Or do I do what is just and right though it could come at a harder personal price? I always believed in abortion rights; that was never a question. But now that I was entering the field of medicine, could I count myself among those who were willing to provide abortions?

As I sat in the back of the room preparing for Dr. Tiller's speech, I thought to myself, "why would anyone willingly become an abortion provider?" As one provider once said to me, "it is easy to walk into a party and state that you are the local cardiologist. It is much harder to announce yourself as the local abortion provider."

Dr. Tiller began by saying he never planned to become an abortion provider. After finishing his service in the Navy, he had planned to go into dermatology. “Yes," he said, "I was going to be a pimple and wrinkle doctor." Prior to embarking on his dermatology plans, his father passed away, and he went to his office to close things down. The women who worked in the office quietly asked him who would take over his father's work. He did not initially understand what they were talking about. He then learned that his father was the local physician who safely terminated women's unwanted pregnancies. With what sounded like a reluctant beginning, Dr. Tiller did indeed carry on his father's practice. He spoke how he performed abortions because what lies behind a woman seeking a pregnancy termination were her "dreams, goals, and potential."

The room was silent at the end of his talk, and nearly all of us young future physicians in tears. Dr. Tiller's wife and daughter were also present. Dr. Tiller had already been shot several years prior by a protestor at his clinic (rumor has it that he was giving her the finger and thus he was shot in the arms instead). He still went to work the next day. He went to work in a bullet proof vest and continued to be subject to constant threats of violence. Someone in the room asked his daughter how she felt about her father being a high profile abortion provider and constantly under physical threat. She stated that she was proud of her father.

In a country where 87% of counties have no abortion provider, we have to ask ourselves whether we are going in the right direction in medicine. Whether our society likes it or not, abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures performed in the United States. Without practitioners committed to performing safe terminations, unsafe abortions will occur. Over 50% of our current abortion providers are approaching retirement age. These are the physicians who saw first-hand the atrocities of illegal abortions and the sepsis and death that ensued. My generation has not witnessed such devastation. We have instead witnessed the atrocities of the murders of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Dr. David Gunn, and now Dr. George Tiller.

That day that I met Dr. Tiller had a strong impact on me and I had the opportunity to meet him a few more times. I spent those years a bit more outspoken, ruffled a few more feathers. What have I been doing in these last 5 years? I've kept my head down, trying to get through residency quietly. As I near graduation from residency, I see that I have made it through successfully: quietly, complacently, ruffling fewer feathers than in previous years. I read the news quietly. I read the news reports that Dr. Tiller's clinic was facing increasingly violent threats. And yet, did I turn to one individual in the last month and tell them that we must protect physicians' lives, protect our own? No, I didn't. I was getting by quietly, and perhaps I have contributed to the complacency that has allowed this heinous act to occur in Wichita.

"It's about a woman's dreams, goals, and potential." Our complacency has let these women down.

Jennifer H. Chuang, M.D.


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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Reflections on the Murder of Dr. George Tiller

The past few days have been hard for anyone who cares about reproductive freedom. The horrific murder of Dr. George Tiller, a compassionate and heroic provider of abortion services, has given us a lot to think about. As we gather our thoughts and our strengths, we at the Duvall Project have looked to our founder, Linn Duvall Harwell, for inspiration. Linn’s mother, Clara Bell Duvall, died from complications of a self-induced abortion in 1929 and she created this organization in her mother’s honor.

Linn's first reaction to the news was one of surprise, being “shocked to hear of yet one more fatality for doctors who care so much for women.” A long-time advocate for reproductive freedoms, the legality of abortion and the safety of providers has been crucial to Linn throughout her work over the years.

“The death of Dr. George Tiller is a tragedy for all of his family, and for all the women who rely on his compassion and caring for their conditions,” Linn says. “We are talking about saving women’s lives, protecting the family, and protecting those in medicine who do this service for women.”

Linn found President Barack Obama’s speech delivered at Notre Dame especially important to dealing with the issue of abortion, reminding all of us that we need to use “fair-minded words” in all of our discussions. “And that does not mean using a gun. The use of handguns in America is our own national version of terrorism. This is what we have seen in the senseless killing of Dr. George Tiller.” She added that “the minute Barack Obama came forth as a pro-choice president, the violence has begun again and those old wounds are opened.”

Linn believes there are many opportunities for young people to get involved. She mentioned self-educating, especially about sex and sexuality, and sharing that knowledge with others as central to increasing preventative measures. She also wants young people to fight for the issue to be removed from the political arena, as she believes that abortion should stay between a woman and her doctor.

Other important ways of getting involved can be anything from sharing your own story relating to abortion, pushing for comprehensive sex education, escorting at a clinic, or just learning as much as you can about the barriers to reproductive freedom facing people today. Although many people are saying that the movement has become complacent, Linn doesn’t agree at all. Following her lifelong commitment to ensuring reproductive freedoms for all, we hope that this tragedy strengthens our communities and increases our commitment to keeping women and their providers safe.

The Philadelphia vigil for Dr. Tiller will be held in Love Park at 5:30 PM today, Tuesday June 2nd.

Dina in Philadelphia

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