Protecting Women’s Health and Reproductive Rights

  1. This past Sunday, STAND CNJ gathered for a timely discussion of women’s reproductive rights and reproductive health, moderated by Heather Howard of Princeton University’s Center for Health and Wellness. Our four panelists were: Elizabeth Coulter, from the Office of Women’s Health at the state Department of Health; Jean LoCicero, deputy legal director, ACLU-NJ; Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director, NJ Citizen Action; and Casey Olesko, from Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Several issues at the federal level are threatening women’s access to reproductive health, and, thankfully, New Jersey is positioned to help maintain access if those threats become reality, according to panelists. However, budget issues could still pose a problem at the state level, and New Jersey needs to confront some serious racial disparities in women’s reproductive health.

Threats at the federal level

At the forefront of everyone’s mind was the impending vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Because he would be replacing retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, a reliable fifth vote for protecting access to abortion, “we have serious concerns about what he’ll do if he’s on the Supreme Court,” said Jean LoCicero, deputy legal director of ACLU-NJ. When asked whether he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, Kavanaugh has given vague answers. (What is known for sure, however, is that he was nominated by a president who pledged to only appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, and who chose candidates from a list pre-approved by Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, a man and organization known for its opposition to abortion rights.) In a previous ruling, and in an email reviewed by senators, Kavanaugh’s record suggests that he will not rule in favor of access to abortion rights should the issue come before the Supreme Court. America could soon find itself with a 5-4 Supreme Court majority directly contradicting the 7 out of 10 Americans who believe abortion should remain legal. This would have a “profound impact on women and their families,” warned LoCicero. Women’s autonomy, health and financial futures are on the line.

Though some states, like New Jersey, have no restrictions on abortion, and would weather the loss of Roe v. Wade without negative consequences, that is far from true for the country as a whole. State level abortion restrictions are already very real in many states, according to LoCicero. More than 300 laws restricting access are already on the books across the US. Five or six states have restricted access so much that there is only 1 abortion clinic in the entire state, and 27 cities are in ‘abortion deserts‘, areas that are located 100 miles or more from the nearest clinic. Additionally, 6 states have already passed ‘trigger laws‘ that will immediately go into effect and ban or restrict abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. As LoCicero said, “the trends are not good.” The next Supreme Court justice will have life-altering consequences on women’s access to the reproductive health care they need.

Two other major issues threaten women’s health care access at the federal level: a proposed change to Title X that would enact an anti-abortion gag rule on women’s health clinics, and possible forthcoming attacks on the ACA, Medicare and Medicaid.

New Title X gag rule

Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed strict new rules for Title X family planning funding. The new rules would not only deny federal funding to any clinic that provides abortion, but would also bar clinics receiving Title X funding from even discussing abortion or referring patients to other providers who offer abortion services. Women’s health advocates, like Casey Olesko of New Jersey’s Planned Parenthood Action Fund, object to this new anti-abortion gag rule. Olesko worries that New Jersey’s Planned Parenthood clinics might have to close some clinics due to funding cuts caused by the gag rule. Gov. Phil Murphy and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal are also concerned. Grewal joined a coalition of 11 state attorneys general opposing the new rule; Gov. Murphy hopes to provide some state funding to offset gag-rule related funding losses. However, Elizabeth Coulter, from the state Department of Health’s Office of Women’s Health, warns that state funds cannot make up for all of these losses. Because of New Jersey’s dire budget problems, there is not enough money to do so.

The public comment period for the new gag rule has now passed, but not before Planned Parenthood and other women’s health advocates led a campaign encouraging people to submit public comments in opposition to the proposed rule. Says Olesko, “we generated an historic number of comments across the country,” more than 6,000 in New Jersey alone and some 200,000 nationwide. The Department of Health and Human Services is currently reviewing and responding to each comment, causing a delay in the gag rule’s implementation. However, the rule is expected to eventually go into effect, though the exact timing is not clear.

Attacks on the ACA, Medicaid, and Medicare

Despite being the law for eight years, the ACA is still vulnerable to attacks from the right, says Howard. Dena Mottola Jaborska, of NJ Citizen Action, agrees. On Sunday, Jaborska reviewed the ways the Trump administration has attempted to sabotage the law’s success in the last two years (e.g. shortening the enrollment period, repealing the individual mandate, allowing ‘junk insurance’ plans that don’t meet the ACA’s minimum coverage requirements), and warned of threats that may be forthcoming: A legal challenge to Obamacare filed by Republican governors and state attorneys general is slowly working its way through the courts, and could soon end up before the Supreme Court. Additionally, if Republicans hang onto control of Congress after November’s mid-term elections, they are likely to attempt another repeal of the ACA.

Safety net programs like Medicaid and Medicare are vulnerable as well. As a result of the Republican tax cut bill passed in December 2017, the US is grappling with a deficit ballooning by trillions of dollars. The GOP is expected to respond by proposing cuts and caps to programs like Medicaid and Medicare, which will reduce access to care for millions of Americans. Republicans are even attempting “tax reform 2.0” this week, hoping to pass even more irresponsible tax cuts that will only make our deficit problems worse, granting more cover to politicians on the right to propose cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other important social safety net programs. “We have to save these programs,” says Jaborska. “We can’t let these short-sighted cuts harm these programs.” “These programs aren’t the problem,” agrees Howard. “You [Congress] created the problem!”

How can New Jersey weather this storm?

Despite all these federal-level threats, New Jersey is well-positioned to deal with them. Since taking office in January, Gov. Murphy has taken several key steps that will help us weather the storm. He began his administration by restoring funding to family planning clinics, which suffered for eight years after former Gov. Chris Christie had pulled funding. In May, Gov. Murphy signed into law 2 bills that will help to shore up the state’s insurance market in the face of the administration’s sabotage efforts. He has also expanded Medicaid again, making it possible for more pregnant women to be covered. As the implementation of the anti-abortion gag rule nears, Murphy is “interested in protecting women’s access to care, making sure care continues, no matter what” happens at the federal level, says Coulter, from the NJ Department of Health. Though New Jersey does not have the funds to make up for all Title X funding losses, as mentioned above, the state hopes to minimize the damage.

However, there are other issues negatively affecting women’s health in New Jersey, according to Sunday’s panelists. LoCicero is concerned that New Jersey’s schools sometimes do not provide the comprehensive sex education that is mandated by the state. Abstinence-only education occasionally slips through the cracks when teachers invite guest speakers from groups offering programs about “sexual risk avoidance”, the new term for abstinence-only education. Our teens can end up with very little useful information about birth control.

Access to birth control is also becoming an issue at religious hospitals in New Jersey, adds LoCicero and Coulter. Citing religious affiliation, many of these hospitals refuse to provide women with the full range of reproductive health care and contraception that is available, a situation known as “religious refusals”. The problem grows when non-religious and religious hospitals consolidate. Religious hospitals will not perform abortions, of course, but they also refuse to perform tubal ligations or give women IUDs or implants immediately after giving birth. This can lead to child-spacing of less than 18 months, which increases the risk of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity. Coulter’s work at the Department of Health has found that there is some level of correlation between higher mortality/morbidity rates and religious hospitals in the area.

New Jersey’s maternal and infant mortality rates in general are of major concern. Our state is leading in many areas, “but unfortunately we are not leading in infant and maternal measures,” says Howard. Maternal mortality rates are high compared to other states in the US, perhaps a result of New Jersey’s very high C-section rate, explained Coulter. (C-sections increase the risk of life-threatening conditions such as hemorrhages and embolisms). In New Jersey, 36 out of every 100,000 pregnancies or births end in a mother’s death, compared to a national average of 20 out of 100,000. Additionally, there are “astounding” racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. Black mothers die nearly four times as often as white mothers (46.5 vs. 12.8 of 100,000 for black and white mothers, respectively). The maternal mortality rate for Hispanic mothers is three times as high as white mothers’. While New Jersey’s infant mortality rates have been declining overall to below the national average, our state has one of the largest racial disparities in infant mortality in the country: 3 per 1000 live births for white babies compared to 9.7 for black babies. Researchers at the Department of Health are working hard to understand and reduce these disparities. Lack of education, “care deserts”, and the effects of institutional racism all contribute to the problems, says Coulter. Care providers have also been shown to have implicit bias that affects how seriously they consider the medical complaints of patients of color. The Legislative Black Caucus is currently working on legislation that would address these startling disparities and lead to reductions.

What can you do?

Sunday’s panelists recommended several actions you can take regarding the various issues affecting women’s health at the federal and state level.

  • Check out Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s monthly Activist Nights. For more information, email info@ppactionnj.org
  • Contact Senator Booker (202-224-3224) and Senator Menendez (202-224-4744) to voice your opposition to the second round of irresponsible tax cuts just passed by the House GOP. (Nervous about calling your representatives? No problem! Call after hours and leave a brief voicemail!)
  • Contact your local school district and confirm that they offer comprehensive, evidence-based sex education. You can do this even if you don’t have children in the schools, LoCicero emphasizes.
  • Call your state legislators and tell them you are deeply concerned about New Jersey’s racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality rates, recommends Coulter. (Not sure who your state legislators are? Find out here.)
  • Vote, vote, vote on November 6th! Get everyone you know to vote! As Jaborska says: Healthcare is on the ballot everywhere this year

If you missed this event, and would like to watch the FB Livestream recording, you can find it at   https://www.facebook.com/standcnj/videos/288143898683620/

 

Special Event: An Afternoon of Wellness

Have you been feeling tired and worn out from making phone calls, writing letters and going to marches? You are not alone! Last Sunday, STAND CNJ invited speakers Jasmine Ueng-McHale and Stefanie Lachenauer to discuss the importance of self-care for concerned citizens.

Jasmine Ueng-McHale, and our “brick road”

“Many of us…have felt called to show up in our communities in a new way” since 2016, says, Ueng-McHale, a psychologist who practices in Princeton and Pennington. To commemorate all this new activity, Ueng-McHale guided participants to create a “brick road” of notecards describing every action they had taken in the last 2 years. An impressive array of civic engagement soon made its way across the floor: making phone calls, going to marches, attending town halls, canvassing for candidates, donating money, meeting with elected officials, researching legislation, learning about important issues at STAND CNJ meetings! While these new experiences of engagement have been exciting and meaningful, we’re also encountering new stressors, says Ueng-McHale: revved up news cycles, friends and family who don’t seem to care, and the feeling that we are “surrounded by messages that nothing matters…people don’t matter, facts don’t matter.” With all this activity and frustration, we risk burning out if we don’t remember self-care.

Practicing self-care does not come easy to most of us. In our culture, “we don’t have a norm of self-care. We have a norm of achieving and doing. We might want to question that,” suggested Ueng-McHale. We also tend to think that self-care is not only separate from the work we want to do in the world, but that the time we spend taking care of ourselves is a drain on how much of this work we can do. Ueng-McHale urges us to stop seeing our own wholeness as separate from the world’s wholeness; in fact, you take care of both yourself and the world when you leave time for self-care. She recommends that we remind ourselves of this important message: “Even when there’s so much work to be done in the world, your well-being is so important.”

How can we preserve that well-being? According to Ueng-McHale, we need to find self-care practices that incorporate one or more of the following activities: maintaining connections and relationships; being outside in nature; creating moments for stillness and reflection; playing and laughing; creating. It can also be helpful to find a friend who’d like to do these activities with you.

Stefanie Lachenauer

Practicing mindfulness is a perfect example of an effective self-care technique. Stefanie Lachenauer, a local teacher with the Healthy Mind Healthy Body Initiative who combines instruction in active citizenship and mindfulness in her work, provided a mindfulness tutorial for attendees. It’s a simple technique – “paying attention on purpose” – that has deep benefits. Lachenauer uses the analogy of a glitter jar to explain how mindfulness works and how it helps. As a jar is shaken up, glitter floats all around, making it hard to see through the water, just like our thoughts when we are agitated and busy. As we calm ourselves and still our minds, our thoughts slowly settle, allowing us to see clearly, just as glitter in a still bottle slowly floats to the bottom of the bottle, leaving clear water.

Lachenauer recommends finding a comfortable spot in your home where you can sit undisturbed. Start with just 5 minutes of mindfulness. You can also practice mindfulness in other situations, like waiting in line. Sunday’s attendees had the chance to practice a variety of mindfulness exercises that can be used at home in your own practice too:

  • Listening to all the sounds you can hear. Start with the sounds you can hear from far away, then the sounds you can hear in the room, then the sounds you can hear inside your own body.
  • Heart and Belly Breathing meditation. Put one hand over your heart and another over your belly. As you breathe pay attention to the movements of your chest and belly. Think of the air you inhale filling your chest and belly. Think of the air you exhale emptying your belly and chest.
  • Shades of a Color Game. Look around the room and count how many shades of a particular color you can find.
  • The Body Scan Exercise. Direct your attention to the sensation in your toes. Then your feet. Then your ankles. Then your calves, and so on. Work your way slowly up to the top of your body.

As we approach the crucial 2018 mid-term elections, its more important than ever to keep ourselves healthy. Remember to take care of yourself, so that you can help take care of your community in the days ahead!

If you missed our Afternoon of Wellness, you can watch the FB Live recording here.

A Renewable Energy Future for New Jersey

After the sudden withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement last year, statewide action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never been so urgent. The time to transition to renewable energy is now, and our state is finally able to do something about it!  At our April general meeting, speakers from the NJ League of Conservation Voters, ReThink Energy NJ, and Food & Water Watch NJ described how to get New Jersey off fossil fuels and onto a path towards 100% renewable energy. Then, attendees participated in our first-ever “action hour” session, writing letters to the governor, state legislators and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. If you missed our meeting, but want to learn more about what actions you can take, text ‘Renewables’ to 797979 to learn about important upcoming events from ReThink Energy NJ, and text ‘NJOFF’ to 69866 to receive updates and alerts from Food & Water Watch NJ.

Guest speakers (from left): Ed Potosnak of NJ League of Conservation Voters; Patty Cronheim of ReThink Energy NJ; and Junior Romero of Food & Water Watch NJ.

 

The time to transition to renewable energy is here     After eight years under the Christie Administration, New Jersey finally has an opportunity to make progress on environmental issues. Already, in the first 2 1/2 months of Gov. Murphy’s administration, “we’ve seen a whirlwind of environmental action,” according to Ed Potosnak, executive director of NJ League of Conservation Voters. And now, major legislation for renewable energy is on the horizon. “New Jersey’s on the cusp of passing one of the most aggressive and bold” plans to fight climate change in the country, says Potosnak.

In fact, New Jersey legislators have 2 such plans to choose from, both bringing the state to 100% renewable energy sources, but on different timelines.

Ed Potosnak, executive director, NJ League of Conservation Voters

Bill A3723/S2314, supported by NJLCV and ReThink Energy NJ, would power the state with 100% renewable energy by 2050. Components of the plan include: moving to 52.5% renewables by 2030, then to 100% by 2050; a price cap that protects ratepayers from excessive charges; investment in community solar programs; and energy efficiency goals for utilities.

Food & Water Watch NJ is supporting a bolder plan, bill A1823/S1405, that would get New Jersey to 100% renewable energy by 2035. According to Junior Romero of Food & Water Watch, this more aggressive plan is necessary because “the next ten years are critical” if we want to avoid a climate tipping point. Supporters of this plan fear that if we wait until 2050 to get to 100% renewable energy, we will be passing this critical issue off to the next generation to deal with.

Patty Cronheim, ReThink Energy NJ

While the goal of transitioning to renewable energy may seem impossible, extensive research prepared for ReThink Energy NJ by the Institute for Energy & Environmental Research and PSE Healthy Energy has actually shown that “it’s essential, its achievable, and its affordable,” says Patty Cronheim. “It’s actually cheaper to follow a clean energy path than our current path.”  ReThink Energy NJ’s report estimates that the cumulative costs of continuing with our current energy portfolio from 2018-2030 (which unfortunately has led to a 27.6% increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2013-2015 alone!) would cost $130,200 billion. Meanwhile, moving to 50% renewable energy sources by 2030 would cost less, at $129,800 billion.

Saturday’s guest speakers emphasized the high number of jobs that would be created in New Jersey by transitioning to 100% renewable energy and increased energy efficiency. For example, according to Potosnak, an energy efficiency program (like the one required in bill A3723/S2314), would triple the number of jobs in New Jersey’s energy efficiency industry to over 100,000. Cronheim estimates that growth in the offshore wind industry during a transition to 100% renewable energy would lead to 70,000 local jobs.

As we consider the steps we will take to reach 100% renewable energy, Food & Water Watch’s Romero warns against ‘greenwashing’ dirty energy. Renewable energy systems should not use garbage-incineration, which is a major health concern for people who live near incineration plants. High rates of asthma have been found in these communities. The burning of animal waste or manure is also problematic. While it is a ‘renewable’ source, it is far from ‘clean’, as it affects air quality, and relies on industrial livestock production, which has many negative environmental consequences.

Romero also reminded us to make sure that our efforts bring about a “just transition.” We need to ensure that people who lose their jobs in the shrinking fossil-fuel industry have access to job training programs for the renewable energy industry. We also need to make sure that the communities who have borne the brunt of our current energy policy — typically low-income communities and people of color who live near energy plants, and whose health suffers greatly as a result — have a seat at the table when renewable energy transition plans are made, and have access to the jobs created by that transition.

The state Assembly and Senate are voting this afternoon, 4/12 on A3723/S2314, the 100% renewables by 2050 plan. If you would like your state legislators to support this bill, or to keep pushing for 100% renewables by 2035 (A1823/S1405), make your opinion known Thursday morning, 4/12! You can find out who your state legislators are here. Click on their names to see their contact information.

The pipeline battle

Weaning off of fossil fuel energy sources requires putting an end to new construction of fossil-fuel energy infrastructure. To that end, environmental organizations and concerned residents are fighting to stop the construction of new pipelines in our state, which is already home to 1,500 miles of major interstate pipelines carrying upwards of 70% fracked gas, according to Cronheim of ReThink Energy NJ. In fact, experts argue that there is no need for more pipeline capacity, and in fact, New Jersey is too reliant on natural gas for energy, leaving us vulnerable to price fluctuations. Cronheim sees proposed new pipeline construction as “the last gasp of the oil & gas industy to get us hooked on natural gas for the next 30 to 40 years.”

Central Jersey residents are currently fighting to stop 2 proposed pipeline projects, the PennEast pipeline and the Williams-Transco NESE project, which includes a gas compressor station to be built in Franklin Township.

The Penn East Pipeline

Local residents and advocacy organizations have been working for several years to stop construction of the proposed Penn East pipeline. The route of the pipeline would cross 67 bodies of water in NJ, some of which are considered “exceptional” in ecological, recreational or water supply significance. The pipeline route would cross the Delaware River, source of drinking water for millions of people in the region. Many are concerned about the possibility of these waterways being catastrophically polluted by an pipeline failure. Pipeline accidents are on the rise, Cronheim reports, due to aging pipes already in the ground, and rushed construction of new pipelines. Local residents are also nervous, as the blast zone of the proposed pipeline route is close to many homes and schools.

The company behind Penn East has recently received a certificate of approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but the fight is not over yet! Before any construction can begin, the pipeline must be approved by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. It is crucial to contact the NJDEP Commissioner now.  Urge her to reject this unneeded pipeline and fully enforce our state’s rules protecting our water, land and air. You can write to her at: DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, 401 E. State Street, 7th Floor, East Wing, Trenton, NJ 08625-0402. You can find information about other actions here.

The Williams-Transco NESE Project and Franklin Twp Gas Compressor Station

Similar concerns are motivating residents to stop the construction of the proposed NESE project and compressor station in Frankling Township. The proposed pipeline route would cross the Raritan Bay, and run alongside the Sandy Hook National Recreation Area. It would also be built near a toxic Superfund site. This has created concerns that digging in the area would disperse all kinds of toxic pollutants, says Romero of Food & Water Watch.

The proposed gas compressor station in Franklin Township is a major concern, as the intended location is very close to housing developments. Local residents are worried about the risk of deadly gas leaks or explosions, as well as all the negative health risks associated with compressor stations. Additional, the toxic gas plume that a compressor station produces would travel far beyond the immediate vicinity of the compressor station, threatening the wider region.

The NESE project is still being considered by FERC. It is urgent that as many as people as possible sign up to become intervenors and submit public comments to FERC opposing the project. Several important events are coming up for concerned central Jerseyans. An action session is scheduled for April 18th in Somerset, where you can learn how to become an intervenor and make effective public comments. Also, FERC will be holding 2 public hearings in the coming weeks, one on April 25th and another on May 2nd. It is vital that people show up to these meetings and make comments! To learn more, go here.

Working together

We have a lot of work ahead of us to transition our state to 100% renewable energy and stop the construction of new pipelines. But it can be done: “We have so much potential with offshore wind and solar in New Jersey,” says Romero. The critical thing is for local residents and organizations to join together. Cronheim and Potosnak emphasize the importance of working together and showing up at rallies, meetings and other events. As Potosnak said, “If we don’t speak up, [officials and legislators] move on to the person who’s squeaking.”

Want to make some noise about this crucial issue at this critical time? Sign up for alerts from our guests organizations and stay involved!

  • Sign up for email updates from the NJ League of Conservation Voters here
  • Text ‘Renewables’ to 797979 to hear about important events where people need to show up, from ReThink Energy NJ
  • Text ‘NJOFF’ to 69866 to receive action alerts from Food & Water Watch NJ