All posts by Nathalie Christian

Infant deaths surge in Texas after abortion ban, reversing decade of progress

[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Be warned that this article contains graphic descriptions of infant mortality and parent suffering.  If you would like to support choice in Texas, consider donating to Texas-based nonprofits that fund equitable access to this essential medical care. A short list of such nonprofits is available below the article. But, as most of you know, Texas is not the only state rolling back basic protections for parents and children. Please also note how much more Black Americans suffer from shocking infant/patient mortality rates than other demographic groups. Profoundly worse expectations around infant/parental outcomes for Black Americans is a huge issue in the US, even here in Solano County.]
(From L) Plaintiffs Damla Karsan, Austin Dennard, Samantha Casiano, Taylor Edwards, Center for Reproductive Rights attorney Molly Duane and Amanda Zurawski attend a press conference outside the Travis County Courthouse in Austin, Texas on July 20, 2023. A Texas state court will hear arguments from both sides in Zurawski v. State of Texas, a lawsuit filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of thirteen Texas women denied abortions despite serious pregnancy complications. | Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro for AP via Getty Images.

Ars Technica, by Beth Mole, July 21, 2023

Deaths of babies born in Texas increased 11.5 percent in 2022, the year after the state banned abortion after six weeks, a period before most women know they are pregnant.

In 2022, some 2,200 infants died, according to data obtained by CNN through a public information request. That is 227 more deaths than the state saw in the previous year, before the restrictive law went into effect.

Infant deaths due to severe genetic and birth defects rose 21.6 percent.

The overall trend of more babies dying in the Lone Star State reverses a nearly 10-year decline in infant deaths there, CNN noted. Between 2014 and 2021, infant deaths in Texas had fallen nearly 15 percent.

The new grim statistics are only expected to worsen. Abortion bans and restrictions are known to increase infant deaths, maternal deaths, and maternal suffering. And the US already has the worst maternal and infant mortality rates of any other high-income country in the world.

In 2020, the maternal mortality rate overall in the US was 24 deaths per 100,000 live births, which is more than three times the rate in most other high-income countries, according to an analysis by The Commonwealth Fund. But for Black Americans, the rate is far higher—a staggering 55 per 100,000. Across the border in Canada, the rate is 8 per 100,000, and the UK sits at 6.5 per 100,000. Infant deaths in the US were also the highest of high-income countries in 2020, at 5.4 per 1,000 live births, while the average was 4.1. In Canada, the rate was 4.5 per 1,000, and in the UK, it was 3.6 per 1,000.

“We all knew the infant mortality rate would go up because many of these terminations were for pregnancies that don’t turn into healthy normal kids,” Dr. Erika Werner, the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center, told CNN. “It’s exactly what we all were concerned about.”

While other high-income countries have seen improvements in infant and maternal mortality rates in recent years, the US has seen declining trends. And the abortion bans and restrictions sweeping conservative states are expected to worsen the situation. Even in Texas, the declines may yet worsen in the current year because of more restrictions on abortion since 2022 began. When the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June of that year, a trigger law in the state banned abortion at all stages except in the case of medical emergencies, which are undefined.

“No mercy”

Despite the existing body of data on the dangers of abortion restrictions and bans, lawmakers and officials in Texas this week are hearing the lived experiences of pregnant people under the bans. A group of 13 women and two doctors are suing the state, claiming that the new laws are unclear and harmful.

Samantha Casiano took the stand Wednesday to speak about her infant’s death. Casiano learned at 20 weeks into the pregnancy (when anatomical scans are performed) that her fetus was not viable due to anencephaly, a condition in which the brain and skull do not fully form. Due to Texas’ ban, she was forced to carry the pregnancy and give birth to a baby girl, whom she named Halo.

Casiano wept and vomited on the stand as she described the experience, including holding Halo in her arms and watching her slowly die, which occurred four hours after the birth. “She was gasping for air,” Casiano said. “I just kept telling myself and my baby that I’m so sorry that this has happened to you. I felt so bad. She had no mercy. There was no mercy there for her.”

Another Texas woman, Amanda Zurawski, testified about her experience of beginning to have a miscarriage at 18 weeks into a long-sought pregnancy, dooming the fetus. But due to the state’s laws, she was not able to obtain standard medical care—a prompt procedural abortion that would hasten the inevitable termination of the pregnancy to prevent complications—because the fetus still had detectable electrical pulses from cardiac cells. (Embryonic cardiac activity begins to be detectable at around week four of pregnancy, but an actual fetal heart and heartbeat do not fully develop until weeks 17 to 20). As Zurawski waited for fetal cardiac activity to fade, she developed life-threatening sepsis and spent three days in the intensive care unit. The delay in care also caused the development of scar tissue, which may prevent her from having children.

Major medical and health organization support and advocate for access to abortion, including the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They consider abortion “evidence-based” and “essential” health care and have described the current US bans and restrictions as an “assault” on safe medical practice.

So far, 14 states have banned most abortions, one state has a six-week ban, six states have imposed bans between 12 to 18 weeks, and five additional states have enacted bans that have been blocked, at least temporarily, by courts.

Advocates point to the following organizations that could use donations now:

  • Texas Equal Access Fund provides funds and emotional support to people seeking abortion care.
  • Lilith Fund is the oldest abortion fund in the state, serving patients in central and south Texas.
  • Frontera Fund provides financial assistance, lodging, and transportation for patients living in the Rio Grande Valley or who have procedures scheduled at Whole Women’s Health in McAllen, Texas.
  • Clinic Access Support Network provides transportation, lodging, childcare assistance, compassionate care, and occasional procedure funding to patients in Houston, Texas.
  • The Afiya Center was founded by Black women in North Texas to promote the reproductive health of Black women and girls. The center’s Support Your Sistah Fund provides practical help to abortion patients.
  • Fund Texas Choice helps with travel and accommodation costs for Texas residents seeking abortion care in- and out-of-state.
  • The Bridge Collective provides information, transportation, accommodation, and abortion doula services.
  • Buckle Bunnies Fund mobilizes across Texas to help secure funding for people seeking care. You can Venmo @Buckle-Bunnies, CashApp $BuckleBunniesFund, or shop on their website to support this fund.
  • West Fund is a community organization working to create universal abortion accessibility. It provides financial assistance to patients in Texas, Southern New Mexico, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who are seeking procedures in El Paso, Texas, or New Mexico.
  • Jane’s Due Process provides reproductive health resources, legal aid, and case management to help young Texans navigate parental consent laws and confidentially access abortion and birth control.
  • The Stigma Relief Fund provides financial help to Whole Woman’s Health patients.

This list was compiled by Bustle on September 9, 2021. It may contain outdated information.

You’re invited! Arts & Culture Commission to dedicate new ‘Play-Art’ piano on Saturday, July 22

Benicia’s vibrant ‘play-art’ pianos combine art, music and culture to bring our community together

Artist Josie Grant’s ‘Jungle’ piano, featuring a natural scene with lush plants and colorful animals, also shows a vista Benicia residents and visitors will recognize from walks at Benicia State Park. July 22’s formal dedication and inaugural performances are open to everyone. | Photo by Will Stockton.

By Nathalie Christian, July 18, 2023

Join Benicia Arts & Culture Commission, public officials, musicians and performers this Saturday, July 22 at 11am at the courtyard in front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (120 East J St., Benicia) for a celebration of art, culture and music at the upcoming dedication of a new public piano.

Now in its second year, the Arts & Culture Commission’s ‘Play-Art’ project invites local artists to transform a classic piano into a lasting piece of public art, available for the whole community to enjoy. After a blind vote, this year commissioners selected Benicia artist Josie Grant to bring her creative vision to life on a baby piano generously donated by Robert Gordon of Gordon’s Piano Shop.

“The ‘Jungle’ piano is great – that’s what I call it,” said Grant, who is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and newer Benicia resident.

Grant didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “I used a portion of my classic visionary oil painting that was created during my MFA, which became an early poster success, called Phantom Lovers, [revising its] design to include the vista of the beautiful Benicia State Park, which I see daily from our new home after relocating from San Francisco and a Sausalito art studio.”

Vice-Mayor Terry Scott was chair of the Arts & Culture Commission during the inaugural installation of Benicia’s first public piano, designed by Phyllis Hartzell and named ‘Hippo.’ His pride in seeing this program survive to entertain the community another year, despite threatened budget cuts, is palpable.

“The Benicia Piano Art Program aims to blend the worlds of music and visual art, fostering moments of joy and connection, and provides a unique background of music to our First Street,” Vice-Mayor Scott said. “By providing these two decorated pianos, the program encourages people of all skill levels to sit down and play, promoting a sense of public ownership and inviting participation.”

The public pianos indeed attract visitors of all stripes, their playful, accessible designs signaling an open welcome to amateurs and professionals alike, appealing to musicians both young and old. It is not uncommon to walk by St. Paul’s on the way to one of First Street’s many bakeries and catch a bit of Chopin, then find a new player plinking out an homage to Dr. Dre on the way back.

“I think it’s fantastic that local musicians, neighbors, and visitors feel encouraged to publicly share their musical talents on these one-of-a-kind decorated pianos,” Vice-Mayor Scott added. “Such community-driven programs can truly bring people together through the power of art and music.”

“For me, it’s a community builder,” Arts & Culture Commission Chair Bizzy Lewis agreed. “There’s something about seeing children, families, even tourists stopping in their tracks to check the pianos out. Rather than keeping their heads down, eyes on their phones, walking briskly, people instead stop to listen to the music, then appreciate the beautiful decorated pianos. They stop, and they take in the moment.”

Musicians and performers of all ages will be at the public piano dedication this Saturday. After the dedication, the Benicia Performing Arts Foundation is inviting the community to upload videos of themselves playing to have a chance to win Downtown Dollars. | Photo by Will Stockton.

“Even when it’s not being played, it’s a beautiful piece of art,” Lewis continued. “It’s great seeing everyone stand together, to listen to music and to appreciate art in community. It’s what we need, and it’s what these pianos do.”

Adding to this year’s fun, the Benicia Performing Arts Foundation is sponsoring a contest where entrants can use a QR code that will be posted on the piano to upload videos of themselves playing. Through the summer, until the pianos are rehoused for the winter, video entrants will have a chance to be randomly selected to win Downtown Dollars, redeemable at participating Benicia businesses.

Even without the added draw of a contest and the promise of Downtown Dollars, Benicia kids appear to have given the public pianos their collective seal of approval. Outside of a few instances of petty vandalism, Benicia youth have embraced the piano, playing alone, in pairs or in larger groups. The low-key, high-creativity setting  offers a little something for everyone, but kids especially seem to love the accessibility and promise of the whimsical, open-air instrument.

“I think the piano inspires young musicians and people that want to be piano players. I like it because my friends and I can mess around with music and play some notes,” said Elle Allure, 9.

“The pianos are artsy and colorful,” said Cadence Cronon, 9. “I enjoy playing and I like playing the notes painted on the ‘Hippo’ piano.” The piano painted by Hartzell was moved to and will remain on display at the Benicia State Capitol building until the pianos ‘hibernate’ during winter.

“I like hearing people play the pianos when I am downtown,’ Pennyroyal Stockton, 6, agreed. “It makes my heart feel good.”

The dedication will begin in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 11am with a special welcome from Arts & Culture Commission Chair Bizzy Lewis and public officials, including Vice-Mayor Terry Scott. After introducing artist Josie Grant and honoring her beautiful design, local pianists and musicians will dedicate the piano with a magical lineup featuring performers both young and old, accompanied by Benicia Ballet dancers.

Admission is free and everyone is welcome.

‘Bad neighbor’ State Farm had at least $30B invested in fossil fuels when it abandoned CA homeowners and climate victims

Like a bad neighbor, State Farm is gone from California

An oil rig silhouetted by a golden sunset.

San Francisco Chronicle, by David Arkush and Carly Fabian, July 12, 2023

State Farm’s decision to stop providing new homeowners insurance policies in California is an indicator of the growing damage caused by climate change. As climate-driven disasters lead to higher losses, insurers like State Farm will raise prices and cut back coverage or even flee.

Far from neutral victims, though, insurers are profiting from both sides of this crisis. They collect premiums and investment profits from fossil fuels while extracting ever more from consumers whom they plan to abandon.

To be clear, there is no question that climate change is disrupting insurance markets. The rising frequency and severity of disasters are driving up the cost of insurance and destroying some insurance markets entirely by rendering areas “uninsurable.”

But there’s more going on here than a simple story of climate disasters disrupting the math of insurance.

The root cause of the climate crisis is the rampant burning of fossil fuels. Insurers are critical gatekeepers for the fossil fuel industry, providing the insurance that allows companies to operate. As experts in evaluating risk and extreme weather, insurers knew about climate change early on. But in their pursuit of short-term profits, they didn’t stop underwriting fossil fuels.

Many are still underwriting the most reckless and dangerous parts of that sector, like the expansion of fossil fuels. Some insurers, largely in Europe, have begun restricting their underwriting of fossil fuels, but U.S. insurers are dragging their feet, even as they increasingly abandon homeowners.

Insurers also invest heavily in fossil fuels, unconscionably using their customers’ premiums to profit from businesses that will destroy their homes and, in some cases, even kill them while driving up insurance costs and making many areas uninsurable.

State Farm is a prime example of insurers’ hypocrisy. Rather than suffering financially in California, the company has made substantial profits in the state in recent years, along with other homeowner insurers whose profits in California have been four times the national average, even after accounting for major wildfires. At the same time, the latest data shows State Farm alone had $30 billion invested in fossil fuels and the industry overall had over $500 billion.

The crisis has also been a boon for industry lobbyists who have seized it as an opportunity to bully states and bilk customers. When State Farm announced its decision to stop offering new California homeowners’ policies, the industry’s primary lobbying group, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, claimed insurers must be allowed to use secret models to set profitable rates. The industry has long wanted those models because they make it harder to catch insurers overcharging for policies. Rather than work on a transparent approach to modeling climate impacts, the industry is pushing a consumer protection rollback it has sought for decades.

The industry playbook appears to be this: Profit as long as possible from fossil fuels. Stick customers with not just direct climate harms, but also higher premiums, while delayingdenying and low-balling claims. Bully regulators for giveaways. Then leave.

Some neighbors. 

Although the industry isn’t putting forward serious solutions, there are steps insurance regulators and legislators can take. In an emergency, the first step is to stop the harm. California can start by requiring insurers to align their underwriting and investments with science-based climate targets to stop insurers from contributing to this crisis.

Regulators can also explore transparent solutions for pricing climate-related risk and consider developing public solutions to provide reinsurance, which is essentially insurance for insurance companies. Public reinsurance programs would facilitate reimbursements for claims above a high dollar amount to insurers that expand their coverage, allocating risks in a way that creates stability for insurers and a stronger safety net for the public.

As insurers leave vulnerable areas, and unregulated reinsurance prices soar, a public backstop for the highest losses would provide more certainty for insurers who want to offer coverage in vulnerable areas while creating a stronger safety net for consumers.

After each disaster and withdrawal, industry trade groups will push for their wish list — with no promise to stay, even if they get everything on it. It’s time for the public and regulators to advance real solutions.

David Arkush is the director and Carly Fabian is the policy advocate for Public Citizen’s Climate Program.

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: The sections bolded above reflect my added emphasis.]