Anti-abortion activists rally on the steps of the Texas capitol in July 2015.
Since this summer's release of doctored sting videos targeting Planned Parenthood, Congress has been embroiled in a fiery debate over funding for the women's health care provider. On Monday, the Supreme Court made clear that it wants nothing to do with this fight. The court declined to hear a case involving federal funds for Planned Parenthood and the organization's privacy in the face of continued probes by anti-abortion activists.
The case, New Hampshire Right to Life v. Department of Health and Human Services, centered on a 2011 public records request filed by New Hampshire Right to Life, an anti-abortion group,with the US Department of Health and Human Services, asking for documents filed by Planned Parenthood when applying for federal funding. The women's health provider had historically received federal funds for family planning services through New Hampshire's state government. But in 2011, the state administration decided to stop accepting and distributing this federal money, concerned that it was being used to "subsidize abortions."
To fill the gap in Planned Parenthood's funding, HHS decided to provide funds to the group directly for 16 months. It required the group to file documentation about its internal policies—including its medical standards manual and its fee schedule—in order to receive the funds, which Planned Parenthood did.
New Hampshire Right to Life filed its request to HHS under the Freedom of Information Act, asking for access to these Planned Parenthood filings and to internal HHS memos tied to the department's decision to provide the reproductive health provider with a federal grant. When HHS refused, New Hampshire Right to Life sued the agency for the documents. HHS ultimately turned over about 2,500 pages of internal agency records. But it withheld most of the Planned Parenthood filings and some internal documents, primarily citing FOIA's Exemption 4, a portion of the law that exempts certain types of commercial information filed by private groups from disclosure.
A federal district court and circuit court both upheld HHS' refusal. Now that the Supreme Court has refused to wade into the disclosure debate, it's cemented that refusal as final.
Attorneys for New Hampshire Right to Life painted the court's decision not to hear the case as another example of government favoritism in the ongoing battle over public funds for Planned Parenthood. "We had hoped the US Supreme Court would consider this case," said attorney Michael Tierney in a statement, "which would have addressed whether the government can continue to veil its support for Planned Parenthood."
On Friday, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear its first abortion case in nine years. At issue in Whole Woman's Health v. Cole is HB 2, an omnibus Texas abortion law that made national headlines in 2013 after Texas Sen. Wendy Davis spent 11-hours filibustering the bill that eventually passed anyway.
Since 1992, the court has ruled on three abortion cases, each time affirming further abortion restrictions. In 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a divided court upheld the right to abortion, but left it to the states to set abortion restrictions, saying that these regulations can't put an "undue burden" on abortion access. This broad ruling opened the door for the hundreds of so-called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers or TRAP laws that states have passed in recent years—onerous regulations placed on abortion providers, often purporting to protect women's health. In its last ruling in 2007, the court upheld a law outlawing dilation-and-extraction second-trimester abortions. If the court continues its pattern of voting against abortion rights and rules to allow Texas to move forward with several burdensome abortion restrictions, it will open the door for other states to do the same, dealing a serious blow to the right to legal abortion guaranteed by Roe v. Wade.
"The Court now has the opportunity to decide whether we will continue to allow elected officials to play politics with women's health."
"The Court now has the opportunity to decide whether we will continue to allow elected officials to play politics with women's health," wrote Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement. "This case represents the greatest threat to women's reproductive freedom since the Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade over 40 years ago. Laws like the ones being challenged in Texas are designed to subvert the Constitution and end the right to a safe and legal abortion."
In this case, the justices are expected to focus on two of the Texas law's most onerous requirements: that abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, hospital-like facilities that specialize in outpatient surgery, and the requirement that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Many medical professionals argue that these restrictions put unnecessary burdens on abortion providers: Building and maintaining an ASC is expensive, given the strict requirements regarding features like hallway width and ventilation. Nor do ASCs enhance the standard of care for abortion; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical groups have repeatedlynoted that the procedure can be safely performed in a typical doctor's office. The admitting privileges' provision gives hospitals in conservative communities or with a religious affiliation the power to effectively stop abortions by denying the necessary admission privileges to doctors.
"The common-sense measures Texas has put in place elevate the standard of care and protect the health of Texas women," wrote Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement released following Friday's Supreme Court's announcement. "We look forward to demonstrating the validity of these important health and safety requirements in Court."
The number of abortion clinics inTexas has already been cut by more than half, as elements of HB 2,such as restrictions on medication abortion, a 20 week abortion ban, and the admitting privileges requirement, have gone into effect over the last two years. Before the law, there were 41 clinics in Texas. Today, there are 18. As my colleague Molly Redden reported in September, this has created large swathes of the state where women must travel hundreds of miles to get abortion care. If the Supreme Court upholds HB2 in full, including the ambulatory surgical center requirement, the number of abortion clinics in Texas could fall to ten.
The Supreme Court has intervened on HB 2 twice before. In October 2014, the court reinstated a district court's ruling that blocked the ambulatory surgical center provisions of HB2 from going into effect and triggering more clinic closures while the Fifth Circuit court considered the case. At that time the high court also overturned the admitting privileges requirement for two Texas facilities. In June 2015, after the Fifth Circuit ruled to allow the HB2 provisions to go forward, the Supreme Court put an emergency stay on these requirements, to remain in effect while the court decided whether to take on Whole Woman's Health for a full review.
Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers in Texas have been preparing to comply with HB2's new requirements since mid-2014, when the law was originally slated to go into effect. Planned Parenthood, for instance, has spent millions to build or refurbish several ambulatory surgical centers in the state. Mother Jonestraveled to Texas to observe these preparations for HB2. Check out our video footage below. (Some of the video numbers have since changed slightly.)
The court has not yet announced whether it will also take Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Currier, a case that centers on a Mississippi law that requires abortion providers to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, but given that they've taken the Texas case, it is unlikely. Mississippi currently has only one abortion clinic, and its abortion providers are board-certified OB-GYNs. But because hospitals in the area have been unwilling to grant—or sometimes even process—the doctors' applications for admitting privileges, if this law stands, it will close down Mississippi's last abortion clinic. In July 2014, the fifth circuit court of appeals ruled that the law was unconstitutional, upholding a lower court's ruling.
A decision in the Texas case will come down in the first half of 2016, likely making reproductive rights a central issue in the presidential election. "Although this is the first step in a much longer process," said Amy Hagstrom-Miller, the president and CEO of Whole Woman's Health, the main plaintiff in the case. "I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will uphold the rights that have been in place for four decades and reaffirm that every woman should be able to make her own decision about continuing or ending a pregnancy."
This is a breaking story. We will update this post as the story develops.
Retirees across America look to financial advisers for help in navigating options for smart retirement saving. But there's a scary fact many folks don't know when they entrust their life savings to a broker. According to a report released by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last week, many financial advisers promoteinferior financial products to collect kickbacks—from pricey Caribbean vacations to gift cards and golf outings—offered by the companies that sell certain annuities. And what's worse, that practice is totally legal.
The study, called "Villas, Castles, and Vacations: How Perks and Giveaways Create Conflicts of Interest in the Annuity Industry," points out that loopholes in various rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, state insurance departments, and other agencies allow this practice to continue. The tainted financial advice costs Americans about $17 billion every year.
To get a sense of the prevalence of these perk-induced conflicts of interest, Warren's Senate office wrote to 15 leading annuity providers, asking whether they offered non-cash incentives, including vacation trips, cruises, and dinners, to annuity sales agents for promoting their financial products. Often, agents have to hit multi-million-dollar sales goals to trigger giveaways, so the letter also asked these companies about their protocols for disclosing sales incentives to annuity purchasers. Warren began the investigation in April, a few weeks after the Department of Labor proposed a rule to help curb conflicts of interest in annuity sales.
None of the companies, says the report, provided complete answers to Warren's questions, but "the responses nonetheless reveal a widespread practice of offering agents kickbacks in exchange for promoting certain annuities…and that such kickbacks are effectively concealed from customers." Thirteen of the 15 companies contacted by Warren's office admitted to offering perks either directly to sales agents or indirectly through third-party providers.Some of the top perks included a 30-day trip around the world for two, a week in Bora Bora, a trip to Monte Carlo, and a week in Rome. Beyond vacations, Warren's office heard from companies that they offered items such as iPads, golf outings, jewelry, dinners at expensive restaurants, and sports tickets.
Here are more examples of the types of perks that companies revealed to Warren's office:
In 2015, American Equity offered the top sellers of its products a trip to San Francisco for agents "and their guests." In 2014, the company offered top-selling agents a trip to Disney World. Children of sales agents who had sold an extra $600,000 worth of American Equity products traveled for free.
For its agents who sell more than $3.5 million worth of Athene products, the company is offering a 2016 trip to a conference in Aruba, with accommodations at the RitzCarlton.
Fidelity Guarantee and Life offered top agents a trip to the company's Power Producer Conference at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, Mexico.
American National offered its top-performing agents and their guests a five-day, four-night stay at the Cove Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
Existing rules limit non-cash compensation for annuity sales, but these regulations still make it fairly easy to provide kickbacks while staying within the confines of the law, the report found. For instance, companies are allowed to offer expensive vacations when they're tied to sales meetings or conferences. They are also allowed to provide perks via third-party marketing organizations as a way to get around limits on non-cash compensation provided directly to sales agents.
Disclosures of these conflicts of interest to potential buyers are limited at best. Warren's report notes that the company's disclosures are often "buried deep" in the annuity prospectuses—documents describing the financial product—"in complete legalese," and that the descriptions of various giveaways are broad and vague. No company clearly described the nature of the perks provided, or the fact "that these perks may create incentives for the agent to put his or her own interests ahead of those of the customer."
The Labor Department's proposed rule aimed at closing many of the loopholes that created conflicts of interest in annuity sales. If finalized, the rule would explicitly require that all advisers giving retirement advice must act in the best interest of their clients, meaning that they cannot encourage inferior products for their own benefit. The rule would also require financial advisers to clearly disclose conflicts of interest rather than burying them in the fine print.
The public comment period on this rule closed at the end of September. The Republican-led House Financial Services committee has pledged to thwart the measure, and at the end of October, the House passed a bill prohibiting the Department of Labor from finalizing this rule. Historically, this sort of stalling tactic has not gone far: The House passed similar legislation in 2013, but the Senate did not take it up. The three Democratic candidates for president have all backed the rule.
Meanwhile, Warren has kept up her efforts to encourage the rule's passage. In September, Warren wrote letters to the Labor Department and the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, questioning potential financial industry input on a report issued by a Brookings scholar that criticized the Labor Department's proposed rule. When the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on which Warren serves, held a hearing about the rule in July, Warren ripped into the president of investment services provider Primerica, Peter Schneider, over a string of lawsuits alleging that the company gave unsound investment advice to imminent retirees. Schneider insisted that regulators have found that his firm acted properly.
"I'm going to stop you right there," said Warren. "The question about the regulators is the question about is it legal to do that, and that is exactly the problem we've got. It is legal to do that."
At Tuesday night's debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich ripped into Donald Trump about his plan to deport 11 million immigrants should he become president. "Come on, folks," he said, exasperated. "We all know you can't pick them up and ship them back across the border. It's a silly argument. It's not an adult argument. It makes no sense!"
In response, Trump invoked historical precedent: "Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower. Good president. Great president. People liked him. I liked him. I Like Ike, right? The expression, 'I like Ike.' Moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country. Moved them just beyond the border, they came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn't like it. Moved 'em waaaay south, they never came back. Dwight Eisenhower. You don't get nicer, you don't get friendlier. They moved 1.5 million people out. We have no choice. We. Have. No. Choice." (You can see video of the entire exchange above.)
The Eisenhower program Trump was referring to, if not by name, was called "Operation Wetback." Implemented by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, the program was frighteningly simple: round up undocumented immigrants and drop them off in Mexico by the busload. The more obscure the location, the better. Dozens of the operation's deportees died. The program was initiated by then-Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., who ordered his officers to shoot "wetbacks" trying to enter America. Ultimately, it wasn't even as successful as Trump claims: Some researchers consider the 1.5 million-deported figure to be highly exaggerated.
White supremacists picked up on Trump's reference immediately:
For more than a month, households in California have been receiving robocalls and mailings about abortion. "In California, a 13-year-old girl can have a surgical abortion without either of her parents ever knowing about it," says the voice on the line, before asking recipients to sign a petition supporting a 2016 California ballot initiative that would require parental notification before a girl can terminate a pregnancy. The vaguely familiar voice making this pitch? Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina's robocalls began in late September, barely two weeks after her fiery rebuke of Planned Parenthood at the second GOP debate catapulted her to the top tier of candidates in polling. These calls—which promise to reach millions of households in California—were paid for by Californians for Parental Rights, a fundraising committee whose founder has spent millions unsuccessfully pushing parental notification ballot measures in almost every California general election for the past decade. Getting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot requires a number of signatures equal to 8 percent of the number of voters in the state's last gubernatorial election. This year, CPR will need to gather 585,407 signatures to qualify the parental notification measure for the ballot.
For this latest attempt, Fiorina is a valuable advocate. The one-time Silicon Valley CEO has emerged as the right's new anti-abortion champion after ramping up her condemnations of Planned Parenthood on the national stage. At September's GOP debate, she forcefully described grisly abortion footage she claimed to have seen in Planned Parenthood sting videos released this summer. A few weeks later, she accused the women's health provider of spreading "propaganda" about her when the group insisted the video she described did not exist. Later in October, Fiorina retold the old story of her pro-life roots—accompanying a friend to an abortion procedure—but emphasizeda new detail: "We went to a Planned Parenthood clinic."
Now Fiorina is throwing her support behind a measure that has been the goal of California's pro-life community for a decade, one that appears to be as much about draining the funds of the pro-choice groups as it is about protecting young women. When contacted for comment, Fiorina's campaign didn't address the candidate's motivations for supporting this measure, saying only that "Carly is proudly pro life and was not compensated in any way."
In total, Planned Parenthood and smaller donors have spent more than $17 million to quash this ballot measure over the years. "That is a huge sum for us," says Kneer.
So far, the calls appear to have attracted more ire than support. Visitors to the Californians for Parental Rights' Facebook page have voiced their frustration: "STOP HARASSING ME," wrote one user. From another: "I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that unsolicited robocalls is [sic] not a smart way to get people to support your cause." Similar reactions have proliferated on Twitter: "Just got an irritating robocall from @CarlyFiorina," wrote one user. "Women are watching, and we vote! #prochoice."
Jim Holman, the founder of Californians for Parental Rights, pushed to get parental notification on the state ballot in 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2011, making this his fifth attempt at passing the constitutional amendment. This kind of repetition for a defeated measure is virtually unprecedented in California, says Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University who studies the ballot measure system.
"There have certainly been initiatives that have been on the ballot multiple times," says Adams. "But I'm not sure there's any other one that's been tried five times."
Holman has bankrolled a large portion of these repeated efforts himself, spending more than $5 million in loans and direct contributions on parental notification measures since 2005—far more than any other donor. A conservative Catholic, he owns the San Diego Reader, one of the largest alternative weeklies in the country and publishes California Catholic Daily, a religious news site that sometimes runs anti-abortion and anti-gay content. The Vietnam vet and father of seven says in media interviews that he has been vehemently anti-abortion since 1989, when his newspaper ran ads featuring photos of aborted fetuses that were found in a storage container. That same year, Holman was arrested outside an abortion clinic in La Mesa, California during a demonstration by Operation Rescue, one of the more extreme anti-abortion groups, and spent two weeks in jail after being convicted of trespassing.
His legislative activism soon followed. In 1997, the California Supreme Court overturned a parental consent law on the grounds that girls under 18 had a right to privacy when deciding to have an abortion. That year, Holman donated thousands of dollars to mount a campaign against the justice who wrote the majority opinion, Ronald George, who was up for a retention vote as chief justice. When that failed, Holman turned to ballot measures.
The first effort, Proposition 73, made it onto the ballot for a 2005 special election. Planned Parenthood spent $2.3 million to defeat the initiative by about 5 points. Mere days after this loss, Holman launched a new petition to qualify parental notification for the 2006 election, where Planned Parenthood would spend $3.4 million to defeat it. In 2008, Planned Parenthood spent $6.5 million to defeat the latest version of the measure. In 2010 and 2011, Californians for Parental Rights filed two slightly different initiatives, five times each—10 attempts in total. None made it onto the ballot. In total, says Kathy Kneer, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, Planned Parenthood and smaller donors have spent more than $17 million to quash this ballot measure over the years. "That is a huge sum for us," says Kneer.
The majority of Holman and CPR's funds and efforts have been spent on getting the measures to qualify for the ballot initially, rather than aggressive media campaigning once they are in play. That's why some opponents believe Holman and his fellow abortion opponents are motivated not just by the content of the measure, but by its financial consequences for Planned Parenthood. (Holman could not be reached for comment.)
"If you are a multi-millionaire who's spending $1.5 million in three consecutive general elections to qualify the initiative for the ballot, but then you don't spend any of your millions on television commercials to attempt to actually pass that initiative, it definitely raises a red flag," Vince Hall, vice president of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, told San Diego CityBeat in 2011.
San Diego State's Adams agrees that this theory is a real possibility: Presidential election voter turnout in California tends to skew liberal, he says, which means that even if the parental notification measure makes it onto the November 2016 ballot, it is not likely to win. "It makes sense that they're doing it to drain funds from their opponents," he says.
If the measure gets on the ballot, it would once again require Planned Parenthood to expend money and energy, says Kneer, and would boost Fiorina's anti-abortion bona fides. What's more—Fiorina's support of the measure is a win-win for her and CPR. She can publicize her anti-abortion stance to Californians while evading campaign ad regulations, but she also brings clout to CPR's oft-failed ballot measure. "I think they were pleased as punch that they got her to do a robocall," says Kneer. "They may think they finally have a way to talk about this and leverage the presidential election. With Fiorina, I think they feel they have a little steam on their side."