Sunday, November 20, 2011

Arizona’s Anti-Abortion Tax Credit Law Violates Free Speech, Endangers Vulnerable Women

Arizona recently passed HR 2384, a law that restricts the Working Poor Tax Credit Program. The program provides matching tax credits to citizens who donate to organizations that benefit the working poor. The new legislations prevents the program from providing these tax credits to citizens who donate to organizations that "provide, pay for, promote, provide coverage of or provide referrals for abortions," or that financially support other organizations that participate in these activities. This sweeping restriction will cause a significant drop in funds for a wide variety of organizations and social service agencies, not just those that provide abortion care.  The law’s unintended consequences will endanger the working poor, the very people the program is meant to benefit. Because it limits what an organization’s staff can say by restricting state funding, it also limits free speech, making it clearly unconstitutional.

While this legislation is mainly aimed at taking away crucial donations from service providers such as Planned Parenthood, it will have the effect of silencing staff in all social service and community health professions. For example, shelters for domestic violence survivors or homeless youth will be forced to choose between providing full and accurate information about available medical services to their clients, and preventing a drop in funding. As a youth shelter employee, if I encountered a young woman who was homeless, pregnant, and unprepared and unwilling to become a mothers, this law would prevent me from helping her find the resources she needs. Under the new law, if this client asked me for information about how she might obtain an abortion I would be forced to keep silent, or lose the donations that keep the shelter open. This would endanger my client, as without appropriate information she would be more likely to seek an illegal abortion or try to abort her own pregnancy. Even if she eventually obtained a legal abortion, the delay in care would make the procedure more risky, as later-term abortion procedures carry heavier risks than earlier treatment.

The tax credit restriction is unconstitutional, as it violates the first amendment right of free speech. Social workers, health center employees, and other staff working for the public good should be able to provide their clients with the full extent of their knowledge of local resources. Although the law does not outlaw certain speech, it places an undue burden on the right of free speech by restricting state funds to only those organizations that agree to tailor their speech to fit the law’s specifications. When people are forced to stay silent in order to keep their jobs and protect their employers, their rights have been violated.

Those who would argue against this law posit that the law does not keep organizations from providing information about abortion, it simply assures that taxpayers are not forced to support these organizations. They claim that taxpayers should have the right not to support an organization that engages in activities they do not agree with. This type of defense of taxpayer morals has no precedent in the United States. Many anti-war advocates have tried to use just such a tactic to defund wars and violence, to no avail. Taxpayers that disagree with foreign wars, the death penalty, or sex education in public schools do not have the right to withdraw public financial support from these government-funded activities, or from organizations that support and disseminate information about them. The anti-abortion crowd should not get a special pass to dictate where every penny of their tax money goes.

The new anti-abortion tax credit law infringes on free speech rights, and ultimately endangers the lives of women and girls. This is just one more under-handed tactic that the anti-abortion movement is using to try to force its morals upon the women of Arizona, this time under the guise of protecting the rights of taxpayers. The real goal of this law is to prevent women from seeking appropriate, legal medical care by restricting the speech of those who would assist them. The measure is unconstitutional, and is currently under review by federal judge Roslyn Silver. Hopefully it will be blocked and we can all go back to doing our jobs.


Flagstaff had it’s own answer to the #occupywalstreet movement on Saturday, and every Saturday for the past month or so, and I went down to the City Hall lawn to check it out. There were about 30 people, many with signs, lining the sidewalk along route 66 and waving at cars as they honked on their way around the busiest corner in town, some of them cheering us on. It felt good to be outside, meeting like-minded people and making a statement. I got to have some in depth conversations about the state of our economy and the causes behind the recession, and I met some new friends with some great views on the world. I also got to interact with a contingent of Ron Paul supporters, who came out apparently just to advocate for the gold standard and antagonize people and attempt to get occupiers on video getting angry at them. It was a fun experience overall and I was glad I went, but part of me felt sad that this town that I love couldn’t do better. It was definitely shrimpy compared to the responses in other cities of similar size with large universities, and I was disappointed that no one was actually occupying anything- just standing on a sidewalk for a few hours with a cardboard sign (mine was on the back of a pizza box) isn’t an occupation.

We may be a small town in a blood red state, but Flagstaff is a university town and a liberal island. There are thousands of students and lots of young people in this town, and almost everyone here has been severely affected by this recession, myself included. (Yes, as much as people like to claim Flagstaff is a rich community, it’s not. The per capita income here is $18,637. That ain’t rich- it’s not even middle class.) However, it also seems to be the home of apathy when it comes to social and economic issues. I’m not that surprised, unfortunately, that there were very few people in this town who knew about the movement sweeping the country, and fewer who cared enough to leave the house (or the bar) on a Saturday afternoon to show their support. Flagstaff could be a major site for a solidarity movement, and we could even use the momentum of #occupy to place our local issues in the national spotlight.

This town may think it’s informed and environmentally friendly, but it can’t even get it’s sh** together to stop SnowBowl from dumping effluent all over the San Francisco Peaks- a sacred site for all the native groups in the area as well as a place Flagstaff residents claim to treasure. It’s frustrating to see all the organizing attempts of the few amazing people in this town who do have the will to fight flounder because there simply isn’t enough support. It’s not because the community doesn’t support these ideas, but because no one can rip themselves away from their daily mountain bike ride or bouldering session to actually do something that matters to us all.

I know this is a difficult movement to wrap your head around- its seems convoluted because financial policy isn’t exactly accessible to most of us. I’ve struggled to understand exactly what it is that’s wrong in this country, and as someone with no background in economics I understand the difficulty of it. But I think most of us have a basic understanding that there is a very small number of people in this country that have most of the power, and most of the money, and they only use it to enrich themselves further. That’s what it meant by the slogan, “we are the 99%.” We are the majority, and we want our country back. Democracy shouldn’t mean that those who can hoard the most wealth get to call all the shots. It may seem hypocritical to protest against something you don’t have a full understanding of- but actually that’s alright. It’s important to make yourself heard, to say that you’re not sure what’s happening but you know something is very, very wrong. One of the major benefits of an occupation is it provides a base for organizing, and for educating. By coming together and refusing to leave, we create a space for communication and learning about what exactly happened that allowed 1% of our population to amass most of the nation’s wealth.

So why occupy? Is standing on the side of the road with signs really going to change the financial infrastructure of our country? Not right away. But a movement is building, and coalescing itself into something powerful. Over 10,000 people have taken over Walstreet in New York and held it for months now, and there are hundreds of supporting demonstrations and occupations in cities all over the country, including Tuscon and Phoenix. The media has mostly attempted to play down this movement as just a bunch of bored, privileged kids with no real message, but one look at the pictures says otherwise. There are people of every age and every background joining together to oppose the greed that has stolen our jobs, our opportunity, and our standing in the world as a nation. A movement like this has real power. Karl Denninger, one of the original founders of the Tea Party and a current supporter of the occupy movement, wrote that “when we will actually see change is when the people come, they set up camp, and they refuse to go home.” It’s happening in New York and other cities, and it can happen here in Flagstaff too.

I think we can do better Flagstaff. There will be another demonstration of support of the #occupywalstreet movement on the City Hall lawn next Saturday- convince me I’m wrong about you. If you’ve seen pictures from New York and it made your heart jump, if you felt even the tiniest spark of excitement, that someone was actually standing up for you- and believe me if you live in Flagstaff, (and you don’t own Gore or SnowBowl) this is for YOU- come check it out. Let the world know you’re angry about what’s been taken from you by the greed of others, and that you do actually care about something.