No More Tax Dollars for Silver Ring Bling

Last week the federal government agreed to end funding for The Silver Ring Thing, a religious abstinence-only education program based in Pittsburgh. The ACLU brought the lawsuit on the grounds that The Silver Ring Thing used taxpayers’ dollars for Christian evangelization of teenagers.

From the AP:

[The Silver Ring Thing] won’t be eligible for more unless it changes its program to ensure the money isn’t used for religious purposes, according to the agreement reached Wednesday between the American Civil Liberties Union and Department of Health and Human Services.

“Public funds were being used to fund a road show, really, to convert teens to Christianity,” said Julie Sternberg, an ACLU attorney.

Sternberg said the ACLU supports the program’s right to offer religious content, but not with taxpayer money. She added she hopes the lawsuit is a “wake-up call” to the federal government to more closely monitor the abstinence-only programs it funds.

The Silver Ring Thing looks like it will be OK without federal earmarks from Specter and Santorum; there is plenty of private money behind it. In fact, Former Philly Mayor W. Wilson Goode is now on a crusade to make Philadelphia the new hub for the Silver Ring Thing.

Which is fine with us–go wild. More power to you. Just don’t use our tax dollars to do it.

Philadelphia Annual Meeting featuring Dover trial lead attorney and expert witness

If you live in the Greater Philadelphia area and want to hear about the future of intelligent design and what its supporters will try next, you should check out the Philadelphia Chapter’s Annual Meeting on Sunday, March 12, at 2:30pm at the First Unitarian Church in Center City.

Our keynote speakers will be Eric Rothschild, lead attorney in the Dover intelligent design case, and Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design and a star witness for the plaintiffs at the Dover trial. More information about the event here. (And hey, there’ll be free coffee and dessert afterwards! Nothing like caffeine and sugar to help with that eternal vigilance thing.)

After Innocence: Freedom is just the beginning

Throughout the week, the powerful documentary After Innocence has been showing at the Harris Theater in downtown Pittsburgh. Last night ACLU-PA had the privilege of hosting the two evening screenings and hosting talkbacks afterwards.

The film follows the stories of eight men who were wrongly convicted, and while it explores how these innocent men ended up in prison, it spends more time telling their post-prison story.

When innocent people are released from jail, they re-enter the world with nothing. On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to spend time with Harold Wilson, Pennsylvania’s most recent death row exoneree. Harold was given 65 cents and a SEPTA pass and released out the door of SCI-Graterford. Graterford is 31 miles west of Philadelphia and located on a state highway while Harold’s family lives in South Philadelphia.

Exonerees have trouble finding work and finding housing because usually their record is not expunged. They walk the streets with a criminal record for a crime they did not commit. There is no state law mandating the expungement of their records, and it only happens if the District Attorney’s office cooperates. More often than not, that is not the case.

There are legislators in Harrisburg who are starting to pay attention. Representative Michael McGeehan (D-Philadelphia) and 17 other co-sponsors have introduced House Bill 1473 to provide exonerees with compensation. Part of the compensation package includes “for each day that the claimant was incarcerated, a sum of money equivalent to the highest amount that a member of the General Assembly would have been entitled to collect for that day as a per diem”. Rep. McGeehan has said that he chose this figure to make it personal for his fellow legislators.

Rep. McGeehan talked with Elmer Smith, a columnist from the Philadelphia Daily News, in January:

“It seems like more and more of these cases are coming up, almost on a monthly basis” McGeehan told me yesterday. “I saw your story and I had to call.

“It’s very disturbing that mostly what we do when we find out we convicted someone wrongly is just let them go and say, ‘Oops.’ Oops isn’t good enough.”

You can hear the emotion in McGeehan’s voice as he runs through the entries in the catalog of injustices that he’s been compiling.

“Ray Krone” – a Pennsylvanian – “served more than 20 years on death row in Arizona (sic) before DNA evidence freed him,” McGeehan said.

“The Vincent Moto case in Philadelphia is one where a guy spent 10 years in prison for a rape he didn’t do. This guy’s family spent their life savings to get him out. They’re in their 70s and going back to work again because their life savings are gone.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Now you are free to get on with your life.’ That’s why I’m doing this.”

Similar legislation, Senate Bill 1029, has been introduced in the PA Senate with eight co-sponsors, including the chair, vice chair, and minority chair of the Judiciary Committee.

What can you do? Contact your senator and representative and ask them to support these bills. In addition, contact Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) and Rep. Dennis O’Brien (R-Philadelphia), the chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, and ask them to move this legislation out of committee.

It’s time for justice to be done in Pennsylvania.

Andy in the HBG

Guest blogger: Dr. David Toub, M.D.

emergency contraception is not an abortifacient

I’m so tired of this issue…

Last week, the TV show Boston Legal aired an episode in which a victim of sexual assault was denied emergency contraception (EC) because she was evaluated in a Catholic hospital. The Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project of ACLU-PA and other organizations encouraged people to host events to accompany the broadcast, and a good deal of attention was generated about EC.

So of course, on the Web, there have been a host of comments about the broadcast, many of which refer to EC as an abortifacient, something that causes an abortion. A Catholic Web site even posted something by the head of the Catholic League, accusing all of us on the Philadelphia ACLU board of being “anti-Catholic.” Of course, I chimed in and tried to correct some misconceptions (bad pun) about EC and its provision to women who are victims of sexual assault. Many of the posts on ABC’s Boston Legal forum simply represented a lack of knowledge about EC, not a right-wing philosophy, and when I pointed out what EC is and does, and that it is not an abortifacient, people seemed to appreciate the information. Not so with the Catholic site, and I’m also curious if the right-wing Jewish World Review publishes my rebuttal to an article about the Boston Legal episode and EC that was anything but accurate.

So what really is the truth about EC? It’s pretty simple—emergency contraception prevents a pregnancy from occurring after unprotected intercourse. It is up to 89% effective in preventing undesired pregnancy when used within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. While it may still prevent some pregnancies after 72 hours, It is much less effective (one exception: the IUD can work as an effective emergency contraceptive even five days after unprotected intercourse).

EC has no effect on an ongoing pregnancy. It is not teratogenic and does not disrupt an implanted embryo. While some believe that life begins at conception, this is a religious concept, not a medical one. Pregnancy results from an implanted embryo; one is not pregnant during the 5-7 days it takes for a fertilized oocyte to transit down the fallopian tube into the uterus. Indeed, as Charles Lockwood points out, for the first two weeks after conception, part of the blastocyst is multipotential, with cells that could develop on their own into an embryo, so there is nothing that particularly makes it a unique “person” at that point. And that is at least a week after implantation, so at 72 hours post-conception, one cannot argue that this represents life as we know it.

So how does EC work? While the precise mechanism of action remains to be conclusively delineated and proven, there is very good experimental and clinical evidence that EC primarily works by inhibiting ovulation and preventing fertilization through various means (inhibited sperm transport, etc). There is no good data supporting the idea that EC functions by preventing implantation of a fertilized oocyte. A review by Croxatto and colleagues concluded that:

“Studies searching for possible alterations of the endometrium at the time implantation would normally take place, found minimal changes of doubtful significance. Recent studies in animals cast serious doubts that LNG prevents pregnancy by interfering with post-fertilization events.”

They also point out, very astutely, that EC does have a non-trivial failure rate, and this is likely to be due to treatment provided too late to prevent pregnancy. Were EC to prevent implantation, which can occur a week or more post-ovulation, it is unlikely that administering EC after 72 hours from unprotected intercourse would be associated with a significant failure rate.

So it is extremely unlikely that EC prevents implantation to any material extent, and its action is contraceptive (preventing conception) rather than interceptive (preventing pregnancy after conception has occurred). Pregnancy results from the successful and sustainable implantation of a fertilized oocyte into the endometrium. EC has no effect on an implanted oocyte, and is not an abortifacient. Arguments to the contrary are faith-based, not medical or scientific in nature.

James Trussell and the Office of Population Research at Princeton University have an excellent site with evidence-based information that also substantiates the concept that EC does not work by preventing implantation.

The truth is that EC can prevent a significant number of abortions. This is a goal that people from both sides of the abortion divide should be able to embrace and use as a starting point to find common ground.

Dr. David Toub is a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia chapter of ACLU-PA. Check out his blog, david’s waste of bandwidth.

Dover comes to a close

With plaintiff and new board member Bryan Rehm abstaining, the Dover Area School District voted unanimously last night to approve a settlement agreement in the intelligent design case. The district will pay $1 million dollars in fees to cover plaintiffs’ attorneys’ costs, more than half of the $2.067 million to which the plaintiffs are entitled based on the court order.

“Attorneys representing [the plaintiffs] settled the judgment for half that amount to recognize the community for voting out most of the board members who had approved the policy.

“This sends a message to other school districts contemplating intelligent
design that the price tag can be truly substantial, and it rewards the school
district and the community for cleaning their own house and voting out the old
board,” said Richard Katskee, assistant legal director for Americans United for
Separation of Church and State….

“Attorneys’ fees are an important part of civil rights litigation,” said
Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “[Plaintiff] Tammy
Kitzmiller couldn’t have afforded this case; the money has to come from
somewhere.” (Philadelphia Inquirer article)

And, thus ends this chapter…

Voting Bill: "Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing"

Well said, by Tom Ferrick, Jr, of the Philadelphia Inquirer

“Consider the case of Pennsylvania’s House Bill 1318, titled the Voter
Protection Act of 2006. It has the stated intent of ensuring voters the right to
access to polls by eliminating fraud, intimidation and identity theft.

So many noble words, employed in an insidious cause.

HB1318 is, plain and simple, a mechanism to suppress voter turnout,
particularly in big cities, especially among poor, minority and elderly voters.
It seeks to make the act of voting more difficult than ever.”

Guest Student Blogger: Report Back on Dover/ID Event at the University of Pittsburgh

Lauren, University of Pittsburgh undergraduate student, blogs on last night’s talk by Vic Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of PA and lawyer in the Dover Trial

After Vic Walczak’s well-attended presentation of the Dover Intelligent Design Trial last night, I felt that not only people concerned with the separation of church and state, but also people concerned with education, should be happy about the verdict. I was excited to see so many students present at the event, as they are the ones most affected by tampering with the educational system.

After the science teachers in Dover decided they would not read the four paragraphs that denounced evolution while singing the praises of ID, the decision was made to have an administrator read them at the beginning of the evolution curriculum every year, interrupting the class. Walczak emphasized that under this ridiculous situation:

“the students couldn’t ask questions about ID and the teachers couldn’t and wouldn’t answer any.”

Any administrator who thought that made for a good learning environment was wrong. In fact, it’s that type of environment for which my fellow college students and I are inclined to give nasty evaluations at the end of the semester.

It has not been so many years since I took biology, and I even have retained much of what I learned. I remember dutifully taking notes on the birds in the Galapagos Islands whose beaks, Darwin guessed, were different because they had to adapt to food sources on each island.

The talk by Vic Walczak drove home the point of the importance of learning, as he had to learn a lot even for the sake of the trial. Walczak explained how he encouraged witnesses to explain evolution in a way that non-scientists–as both he and Judge John E. Jones were–could understand. It benefits no one to learn less, whether the mechanism is book banning (I loved 1984 and To Kill A Mockingbird) or curriculum gutting. I think the school board lost perspective and put their personal religious beliefs over the importance of a rigorous education.

In an age of competitive education, I’m glad we have judges fit enough to rule against teaching information that, as one of the expert witnesses perfectly quoted, “makes kids stupid.”

Rendell says: Stop screwing around

“TO THE HONORABLE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA: I am returning House Bill 1318 without my approval.

Elements of this bill will cause significant interference with the fundamental right to vote and violate the U. S. Constitution as well as Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states: ‘Elections shall be free and equal; and no power civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.’ I, therefore, must veto this legislation.”

Quoting letters from the AARP and League of Women Voters and refuting claims that a veto of the bill would allow for voter fraud, Governor Rendell made appearances in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, today, in order to publicly veto HB 1318. Rendell called attention to the large segments of the population that could be disenfranchised by this bill, particularly poor people, people of color, the elderly and those displaced from their homes. He also told the Pennsylvania General Assembly to “stop screwing around” with the voting rights of the military, calling the provisions in HB 1318 inadequate and pointing to House Bill 544 for a more comprehensive solution.

Today, both the Philadelphia Daily News and the Harrisburg Patriot-News published editorials critical of HB 1318.

Voter fraud does not exist in PA

Yesterday we told you

the voter fraud that ID would stop does not exist in the Commonwealth.

Today the Patriot News of Harrisburg confirmed it.

With all the debate over whether voters should show identification when they come to the polls, some might think the courts are clogged with ballot-casting miscreants after every election.

Nope.

Local election and law enforcement officials said they can count on one hand, with fingers left over, prosecutions against people who tried to vote twice or pretended to be someone else to cast a ballot.

Patriot News: Voter fraud rarely occurs, officials say

Another flaming liberal for checks and balances

George Will.

Besides, terrorism is not the only new danger of this era. Another is the administration’s argument that because the president is commander in chief, he is the “sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs.” That non sequitur is refuted by the Constitution’s plain language, which empowers Congress to ratify treaties, declare war, fund and regulate military forces, and make laws “necessary and proper” for the execution of all presidential powers. Those powers do not include deciding that a law — FISA, for example — is somehow exempted from the presidential duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The administration, in which mere obduracy sometimes serves as political philosophy, pushes the limits of assertion while disdaining collaboration. This faux toughness is folly, given that the Supreme Court, when rejecting President Harry S Truman’s claim that his inherent powers as commander in chief allowed him to seize steel mills during the Korean War, held that presidential authority is weakest when it clashes with Congress.

This is required reading. No Checks, Many Imbalances