Corporate Cash Breeds Inequality

When the founding fathers gathered to declare independence, they were responding to consolidated power in the form of the monarchy and the church.  The system that they designed to govern the United States was intentionally complex and diffuse, with checks and balances in place to prevent any single individual or group from exerting undue influence over the process.  This past Thursday, with their ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court violated these intentions, enhancing the influence of a small handful of very powerful institutions and providing them with the tools to crowd out diverse voices.

Many critics of the ruling in favor of Citizens United, which lifted a six-decade-old ban on corporations using their profits to endorse or oppose political candidates as well as a set of rules about the timing of corporate-sponsored political advertisements, have focused on the degree to which it will further strengthen the power of special interests over policy decisions.  While this is true, it is also important to note that the ruling will almost certainly further limit the representation of women and people of color, who traditionally have more trouble raising the sums of money necessary to effectively compete in increasingly expensive elections.  By and large, the candidate who spends more money wins, and this has long contributed to the political underrepresentation of many communities.  Having to compete with not only a better funded opponent, but with freer-spending corporate interests as well, will cause many candidates not to run and many candidates who do choose to run to lose against the increasingly long odds.  And, as the voices of underrepresented communities are stranded further and further away from the halls of power, existing disparities in opportunity will almost certainly worsen.

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Possible Internet Regulations Threaten Opportunity

As reported yesterday on NPR, current efforts by telecom providers threaten access to information and applications on the Internet. Possible changes by the Federal Communications Commission highlight these efforts, which pertain to what power Internet service providers have in restricting access that conflicts with their own interest. What is at stake are the values of opportunity, something that should be examined as the FCC released the proposed regulatory changes for public discussion.

Restricting the use of Internet based alternatives to telephones, such as Skype and other voice over Internet applications, is just one example of what changes could take place. As telephone and cable providers aggressively market often monopolized products, bundling Internet and telephone packages into one service plan, services that are free over the Internet jeopardize telecom companies own share in person to person communications.

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Real Choices for Reproductive Justice

It is certainly an important time for America's discussions of health, but also an important time to talk about equality in America as it relates to access to reproductive health care.

University of Pennsylvania professor Salmishah Tillet wrote on June 4th about where reproductive justice fits into the broader discussion of civil rights.  She argues that the threat to reproductive justice that George Tiller's murder constitutes is critically important to women of color, who often face particular challenges in obtaining comprehensive family planning materials.  She says:

While abortion is rarely seen as a civil rights issue, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade would have dire consequences for African-American women....  Today, reproductive injustice continues to adversely affect African-American women. Federal underfunding of adequate family-planning programs and lack of access to inexpensive, readily available contraceptives certainly play a role."

However, this civil right is being challenged for African-American women and women throughout the United States.  Recent events remind us that legislation is only the beginning of what access means.  Aside from financial barriers, abortion providers are increasingly terrorized out of serving American women.  In many communities, violent extremist groups provide endless challenges to providers of women's health care. In a recent LA Times article, DeeDee Correll describes the safety concerns that Tiller's friend and colleague Warren Hern endures every day

"Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.

"'It ruins your life,' Hern said."

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that, according to the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, the number of abortion providers in the US has fallen by 11% since 1996.

Obviously, this is a difficult issue to stand up for when the stakes are so high.  This anonymously produced video, "Silenced," details the challenges faced by those who work at abortion clinics.  It was released on May 26th, just five days before Tiller's death.  Recent events make it painfully timely.

The abortion debate seems to be spiraling out of control, as evidenced by "pro-life" activist Bob Enyart's recent irresponsible statement in the LA Times: "If a Mafia hit man gets killed, people recognize it's an occupational hazard."  Additionally, Sotomayor's nomination raises the stakes in the debate about reproductive justice.  At such a defining moment, and with so many voices are chiming in about reproductive justice, it is important to come out strong and show support for the doctors that provide access to critical health procedures for all Americans.

Reproductive justice is about real choices-- not just passing laws, but also training health care providers and ensuring access to crucial reproductive health procedures.  Keeping abortion providers safe, and ensuring that the provision of women's health remains a viable career is an issue of health and equal access to opportunity for all Americans.

Read more at The Opportunity Agendawebsite

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Come Fly With Me

The eye is one of the most complex organs in the human body. What was millions of years ago a simple concave receptor sensitive to ultra low frequencies of light has not just become an advanced organ that utilizes one-third of the nerve endings in the human body, but it has also become one of the most powerful influencers in the craft of rhetorical persuasion.  So much, that those who lack this basic faculty of perception face great obstacles in the pursuit of opportunity and equality.

I've been stewing over this for several days now, after learning of Pavel Obiukh, a Russian advocate who was denied access to a flight leaving Moscow the other week, after the flight crew learned that he was a patron who was blind.  The air carrier, S7, said it was in compliance with Russian law, which can deny access to a person with special needs if that person doesn't notify the carrier of such needs. Pavel did, in fact, notify S7, which failed to inform the flight crew, who then refused Pavel's entry onto the aircraft.

It's difficult to imagine such a situation happening in the United States, where an entire generation has grown up since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, American perception mirrors more of Russian shortsightedness than that of America's own foresightedness in progress for people who have vision loss.

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Health: A Big Week For Equality

It's been a big week for equality, as Congress has passed two major pieces of legislation that move the country in the direction of equal access for all Americans regardless of disability.

The major headline which you have probably heard about is the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments. These amendments restore the spirit of the original Americans with Disabilities Act, which had come under fire from Supreme Court rulings that put people with disabilities in a Catch-22 situation. As explained by Cristóbal Joshua Alex of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights:

In one case after another, the Supreme Court whittled away at the landmark Americans with Disabilities Actby ignoring Congressional intent and narrowly interpreting the definition of disability. [. . .] This created a Catch-22 situation: if a person is able to limit the effect of having a disability, say by taking medication or using a medical device, that person would no longer be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and employers were free to discriminate at will. The result has been devastating. Plaintiffs lose 97% of employment-related cases under the ADA.

The absurdity played out in courtrooms across the country where judges, following the Supreme Court precedent, ruled that people with epilepsy, cancer, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and even
blindness were not "disabled" under the ADA. But, as the bill's sponsor, Congressman Steny Hoyer points out, the ADA is not about disability, it's about the prevention of wrongful and unlawful discrimination.

The Amendments passed by an almost unheard of unanimous voice vote in both the House and the Senate. The impressive victory was a result of all stakeholders in the process, business, labor, and advocates for people with disabilities, recognizing that they were all part of the same community and could find common ground to restore the anti-discrimination protections of the law. When we unite around common American Values such as fairness and dignity, we can find commonalities with those who we might usually think of as our adversaries.

More good news came yesterday with the news that the Congress has also passed a long sought-after mental health parity bill that requires health insurers to treat mental health coverage on equal terms with physical health coverage.  The legislation passed in the Senate as part of a larger renewable energy bill by a vote of 93-2, and in the House by a vote of 376-47.  In the words of some of the Senators key to the passage of the legislation:

"This bill provides mental health parity for about 113 million Americans who work for employers with 50 employees or more," said Mr. Domenici, who has a daughter with schizophrenia.
"No longer will people with mental illness have their mental health coverage treated differently than their coverage for other illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes."

With this bill, said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, "we are eliminating the stigma and affirming the dignity" of people with mental illness.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, said, "Mental illness will no longer take a back seat to physical illness."

Mental health parity was one of the signature issues of the late progressive champion, Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who died tragically in a small plane crash while campaigning for re-election in 2002. His work, and those who have continued it, demonstrate that equality, opportunity, and dignity are American, not partisan, goals.

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