- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Aug. 6, 2016.

Fetal burial rule is an attack on human dignity

Texas leaders’ latest attempt to use state government to stop abortion may be the cruelest, least defensible thus far.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive to the Texas Department of State Health Services that it pursue a rule that fetal remains be buried or cremated. The gubernatorial-directive approach is surreptitious, unlike asking the Legislature to do it. The declared reasons for the proposed rule are 1) public health and 2) human dignity - both of which would be ill-served.

At a hearing last week, no one could offer proof that the rule would protect public health. Current disposal methods aren’t a public health problem. They’re much less expensive, more environmental and unlikely to inflict emotional pain on women. Those are pluses except to those bent upon blocking abortion rights.

If human dignity were a concern, Abbott never would have proposed a rule so emotionally disturbing and cruel - not only to women who choose abortion but to women whose wanted pregnancies end in miscarriage. Those women, their mates and families would be unfortunate collateral victims of what amounts to an expedient legal necessity.

Exempting miscarriages isn’t a practical strategic option because it would expose further the folly of the state’s already fig-leaf-thin public health and human dignity arguments. The rule’s true intent - pricing women and clinics out of abortion - would be fully exposed for easy pickings by plaintiffs in the inevitable reproductive rights lawsuit. The Supreme Court’s standard for abortion-related regulation is that there be some benefit to the state and that it not unduly burden access to abortion. This idea fails on both counts, but with a louder thud if the state exempted miscarriage.

Thus, to protect the state’s already tenuous position, couples already grieving over a miscarriage would be forced to face the additional burden of interment decisions and expenses, which could include choice of urn or miniature casket, a burial plot, whether to give the remains a name, whether to have a funeral service, etc. Most miscarried fetuses, like most aborted ones, are the size of a pea pod. Normally, the earliness of the developmental stage can be of some solace to a grieving woman who wants a baby, but not if she’s surrounded by all the trappings of a funeral.

As if that weren’t enough to expose the human dignity argument as a sham, during last week’s hearing the issue of what a woman is to do with the remains if she miscarries at home came up for discussion: Would she be required to take it to a hospital? A doctor’s office? An anti-abortion advocate responded by proposing that women who miscarry at home be exempted. But as we’ve already established, there goes the already bogus public health argument out the window. Women miscarry wherever they happen to be. They can schedule an abortion but not a miscarriage.

The more this proposal is explored, the crueler and more gruesome it gets.

The rule doesn’t specify yet who would bear the cost. But no matter who pays, there is no cheap option. The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Texas, which opposes the rule, warned the state that the rock bottom is $2,000.

Three other states have implemented fetal burial laws and Indiana is in a legal fight over its attempt to do so. Texas should abandon this idea, not only to avoid the time and expense of an unwinnable legal battle but for the sake of human decency.

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Houston Chronicle. Aug. 5, 2016.

Kids and guns: Unsecured and loaded guns are a tragedy waiting to happen

Texas is No. 1 in the nation on a tragic list. Our state had the most unintentional child shootings in 2016, according to Moms Demand Action, a grassroots advocacy group. At least 15 incidents of a person age 17 or under unintentionally killing or injuring someone with a gun have occurred so far, with a tally of seven deaths and eight injuries. Six of those shootings have taken place in the greater Houston area.

Even the youngest children are at risk. Toddlers have shot at least 23 people nationwide as of May, according to the Washington Post, some fatally. Texas and Missouri are tied for second place in this category with seven shootings.

Many factors contribute to these grim statistics. The reckless behavior of adults, such as leaving a loaded gun laying around in a house with children, should be strongly prosecuted. Fourteen people over an eight-year period ending in 2014 were charged in Harris County for making a firearm accessible to a child, according to the district attorney’s office, as reported by Chronicle reporter Rebecca Elliott.

Another contributing factor needs attention: the overconfidence of parents or guardians. Parents and caregivers who believe young children don’t know where their guns are hidden or how to access them are too often wrong. Take the case of the 7-year-old in Brazoria County who accidentally shot himself in the head last month when he got into his grandfather’s locked gun cabinet. The boy went to lengths to find the key.

A Harvard study supports the commonsense notion that kids may know more about their parents’ guns than their parents think they do. More than 70 percent of children surveyed under age 10 knew where their parents stored their guns - even when they were hidden.

Around 1.7 million children live in homes with guns that are unloaded and unsecured, according to a report by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. Adults must always assume that children know where their guns are stored and, if locked, where the key is hidden. They should unload their guns of ammunition and take immediate action to set up a truly child-proof system.

Gun ownership in Texas is on the rise, and first-time owners may not have had experience in the safe storage of guns. While owning a gun is a personal decision, storing guns responsibly is a public safety issue.

Kids around unsecured and loaded guns are a tragedy waiting to happen. Prosecution of irresponsible gun owners are one deterrent. But ultimately, heightened vigilance and action will be the only way to end these senseless deaths.

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The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 5, 2016.

We cannot afford to rely on the criminal justice system for mental health care

Recent reports from the Center for American Progress and the Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center confirm what many already understood: The U.S. relies too heavily on our criminal justice system to deal with the public health problem of mental illness, and our criminal justice system isn’t adequately prepared for this responsibility.

Dallas is no exception. Just days after the Dallas police ambush last month, Police Chief David Brown made national headlines in his news conference on how “we’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” His first example? Mental health issues. In June, The Dallas Morning News’ Naomi Martin reported that Dallas police received 12,141 911 calls related to a mental patient in 2015, an 18 percent increase since 2012.

These two national studies provide more details to underpin local concerns. The Public Citizen report found that county jails are dealing with an increasing number of seriously mentally ill individuals, largely due to downsizing and closing state psychiatric hospitals without providing necessary alternatives. According to the Center for American Progress’ report, federal and state jails and prisons hold three times as many people with mental health conditions as state mental hospitals. And one in five prison inmates has a serious mental illness.

In Texas, the Dallas County Jail is the second-largest mental health institution, behind only the Harris County Jail. At least 25 percent of our jail’s inmates suffer from mental illness.

It’s a serious problem - one our jails and their staffs weren’t designed to handle. They often lack the proper training or resources to adequately treat mental illness, Public Citizen noted: “Almost half of the jails reported that only 2 percent or less of the initial training they provide to their staff and sheriff’s deputies was allotted to issues specifically dealing with seriously mentally ill inmates.” For annual training on such issues, more than 60 percent of jails said they spend two hours or less.

It’s unfair to law enforcement and the public to primarily rely on the criminal justice system to handle mental illness. It’s also unnecessarily expensive.

Jailing a person with serious mental illness costs nearly $50,000 per year on average, the Center for American Progress report noted. The price tag on even the most expensive and intensive community-based interventions, however, is significantly less. For example, providing Assertive Community Treatment - a team-based treatment model that provides round-the-clock support - and supportive housing, according to the report, costs around $20,500 annually.

This newspaper has consistently supported efforts to “erase the stigma” around mental illness, since stigmatization only exacerbates the problems and pain. But that’s only one part of the equation. We also need to better fund and improve mental health care. These new reports should strengthen our resolve to invest in mental health care services, so we can empower, not imprison, those who are struggling.

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San Antonio Express-News. Aug. 4, 2016.

Voter ID rulings not all about Trump

There is something happening with laws that suppress voting nationally. And it’s good for democracy. No, their roll back isn’t about rigging the election against Donald Trump.

In a series of rulings on such laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Dakota - and others earlier - judges have halted or diluted restrictions on voting.

A panel of three judges at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said last month that North Carolina’s voter ID law had targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” In other words, intentional discrimination.

Earlier, a panel of judges at the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 9-6 that Texas’ voter ID law had discriminatory effect and sent back to a lower court the matter of whether the Legislature intended this. The lower court judge is now imposing some fixes to weaken the restrictions based purely on that ruling of effect - in time for November voting.

There has always been cause to be skeptical of state claims that voter ID laws are necessary to combat in-person voter fraud. Since such fraud is rare, the courts are reasoning that the cure is tantamount to ordering surgery and quarantine to treat a pimple.

GOP presidential nominee Trump, of course, is framing these rulings as attacks on his candidacy. Everything, apparently, is about him.

“If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” he told the Washington Post recently. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.”

In Ohio, Trump said that “this election is going to be rigged” and later that the election will be “taken away from us” through fraud, according to reports.

Where to start? Trump is a walking, talking provocation who invites higher voter turnout - as is Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for other reasons, a function of unrelenting caricaturization of her for decades. But a soaring turnout, if that happens, will be legitimate, purely a response to the stakes in this election and the polarizing personalities involved.

What is likely occurring in Trump’s head is some early rationalization in case polling continues to point to a Clinton win. It is a strategy intended to lay the groundwork for his own political martyrdom should he lose, concocting a cause that ensures a continued following of conspiracy theorists and a reason for this base to claim a Clinton presidency is illegitimate.

Yes, Trump is being a sore loser before he even loses - before it’s even clear that he will lose. The maximum number of people voting, Trump apparently forgets, is supposed to be an American value.

Sixth Circuit judges have said curtailing early voting violates the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act in Ohio. Judges have stymied efforts in Kansas to make voter registration harder by making people prove they are citizens.

Voting restrictions are on the run. What’s equally clear is that these restrictions were, in fact, put into place to suppress minority voting - i.e., Democratic voting - in red states. In other words, to “rig” elections for Republican candidates.

This rollback of restrictions, of course, could change direction. Other courts could rule differently. But it’s telling that there were no appeals for emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court. Without reliably conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in Texas earlier this year, a Supreme Court ruling for restrictions is iffy because a 4-4 deadlock is likely.

And this brings into clarity the importance of Supreme Court nominations in this presidential election. It also brings into sharper focus why the GOP-controlled Senate has refused to act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the court vacancy.

Want a continued slapping down of voting restrictions and a generally progressive direction for the high court? Or maybe you want the next nominees to be in the mold of Scalia - as Trump has promised - and a conservative direction for the court.

Vote accordingly. The Supreme Court is among the most important issues in this campaign.

For now, we urge the Texas Legislature in particular - but all state legislatures - to abandon attempts to restrict voting.

All this court action will thwart Trump? Well, if minorities vote at higher rates because of these rulings, this will be a self-inflicted wound, a reckoning because of Trump’s own words and deeds.

The courts are rolling back restrictive voting laws purely to ensure a constitutional right to vote. That’s not a rigging but a correcting.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. Aug. 3, 2016.

Is Baylor student-conduct code more hindrance than help these days?

Allegations that some Baylor University officials used student-conduct prohibitions against drinking and premarital sex to intimidate and discourage victims of sexual assault from pursing their complaints are enough to raise one’s blood pressure in outrage. And even though these are as yet unproven, such claims should prompt Baylor leadership to further explore whether stern, unforgiving student-conduct codes have positive relevance today - even on a resolutely Christian campus where parents expect their children to walk the straight and narrow as students.

One can debate whether the question is more relevant now because of Baylor’s national profile in football and other areas. But even in the days of Floyd Casey Stadium, one was struck by the irony of Baylor’s official intolerance of student drinking when the activity was so obviously a part of tailgating merriment. Isn’t it hypocritical to turn a blind eye to such gameday revelry when conduct standards loom over students in other venues and other scenarios?

Baylor leadership should seek to address these inconsistencies. After all, BU regents’ “Findings of Fact” outlining administrative failures in recent years to prevent sexual assaults and properly address student victims indicate conduct policies represented a hurdle. Even without misguided Baylor administrators to complicate matters, these policies might have caused any traumatized Baylor student victim to think twice about reporting an incident to higher-ups, especially if activities such as drinking were involved.

“The administrators tasked with implementing Title IX prior to November of 2014 (when a full-time Title IX coordinator was hired) had a limited understanding of the dynamics of sexual violence and existing barriers to reporting on Baylor’s campus, including the impact of other campus policies regarding the prohibition of alcohol and extra-marital sexual intercourse,” regents wrote in their May 26 findings amid a national scandal over sexual violence involving students and football players.

Fully acknowledging that some sexual assaults stemmed from unwise decisions by students, Baylor should at least scrutinize the steps at Mormon-run Brigham Young University to scuttle student-code infractions when the horrendous charge of sexual assault is raised. Baylor should scrap any vestige of victim-blaming and ensure the greater sins are prioritized through its significantly expanded Title IX office. As the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights notes of such matters in an April 2014 report, “a school should review its disciplinary policy to ensure it does not have a chilling effect on students’ reporting of sexual-violence offenses or participating as witnesses.”

Which leaves us with an awkward question, particularly as Baylor officials now implement recommendations offered by the Pepper Hamilton law firm charged with investigating systemic failures in Title IX gender-violence issues: How should a university such as Baylor continue to imbue everything from student life to academic research to, yes, winning football games with a decidedly Christian stamp?

Perhaps this is the golden opportunity to make chapel an even more compelling experience. Perhaps this is an even greater opportunity for student organizations that seek to put the Christian principles of charity and good acts to work in pursuits ranging from philanthropy to weatherizing old homes in run-down neighborhoods. For those whose faith is ripe with possibilities, the sky is the limit. If the ongoing scandal and systemic failures even vaguely revealed to the “Baylor family” in recent months are any indication, the current model has run its course.

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