Monthly Archives: March 2018

From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality

Event Announcement
Friday, March 30, 2018
From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality
Barbara Jordan Conference Center | Henry J. Kaiser Foundation
1330 G Street, NW | Washington, DC 20005
1:00 pm – 2:30 pm


America has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, according to the World Health Organization which found that between 700 – 1200 women died in the United States each year from pregnancy or childbirth complications. The United States’ maternal mortality rate has more than doubled since 1990, climbing from 12 to 28 deaths per 100,000 births.

We know that not all women are equally impacted by this phenomenon. According to NPR and ProPublica, Black women are 243% more likely to die in childbirth than white women. However, what many do not realize is that Black women’s vulnerability to maternal mortality is not a class determined issue. Factors that contribute to pregnancy and childbirth complications include damaging stereotypes about Black women’s strength and resiliency, and the pervasive notion that their pain is less real than that of their white women counterparts – factors that impact all Black women regardless of their socioeconomic success, academic achievement, and overall health and wellness.

As much as Black women have been valorized for their strength, we must recognize the elements of this myth that constitute relics of slavery. The indestructibility of Black women has long been an excuse for overwork and under-protection, a rationalization for our exploitation and abuse that has morphed into a dangerous stereotype that we have all too often internalized. These assumptions gravely imperil and undermine Black women’s health, both mental and physical, and lead to higher rates of heart disease, strokes, and maternal mortality.

Additionally, pregnant women of color are at greater risk of being deprived of a range of reproductive health services in many US states as a result of their disproportionate use of Catholic hospitals, according to a new report released on January 19th by the Columbia Law School Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) in partnership with Public Health Solutions. Bearing Faith: The Limits of Catholic Health Care for Women of Color compares racial disparities in birth rates at hospitals that place religious restrictions on health care.  Catholic-affiliated hospitals are governed by the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” a set of strict guidelines that prohibit doctors from providing contraceptives, sterilization, some treatments for ectopic pregnancy, abortion, and fertility services regardless of their patients’ wishes, the urgency of a patient’s medical condition, the doctor’s own medical judgment, or the standard of care in the medical profession.

The report finds that in many states, women of color are far more likely than white women to give birth at Catholic hospitals, putting them at greater risk of having their health needs determined by the religious beliefs of bishops rather than the medical judgment of doctors; This finding is especially troubling given that women of color already face a range of health disparities—including lower rates of insurance coverage and higher rates of pregnancy complications—which increases their need for comprehensive reproductive health care.

To hear radical discourse on the implications of these issues, and the steps we must take moving forward to address these systemic injustices, join the African American Policy Forum at The Barbara Jordan Conference Center in Washington DC on March 30, 2018 from 1:00-2:30pm for the closing panel of their week-long program, #HerDreamDeferred 2018: From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality.

The panel will feature remarks from Kira Shepherd, Director of the Racial Justice Program with Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, among others, and will explore the ways in which stereotypes around the invincibility of Black women, their environmental circumstances and the gaps in culturally competent health care all intersect and interact to endanger Black women in specific and extreme ways.

Further details about this event may be found at Eventbrite; for questions about this program, contact Henone Girma at, or Liz Boylan at

PRESS ADVISORY: PRPCP Responds to the Reintroduction of FADA in U.S. Senate

Press Advisory
March 8, 2018 


“First Amendment Defense Act” (FADA) is reintroduced in the Senate. Bill would establish vague, overly broad, and unnecessary religious accommodations and would seriously harm other Americans’ legal rights and protections. 


“Not only is this bill unnecessary to the protection of religious liberty in the United States, its language would be harmful to the constitutional rights of millions of Americans.”


Professor Katherine Franke, 212-854-0061,
Elizabeth Reiner Platt, 212-854-8079,

New York, March 8, 2018–The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project is dismayed that the deceptively named “First Amendment Defense Act” (FADA) was reintroduced into the U.S. Senate today by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and 21 Republican co-sponsors, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Orrin Hatch (Utah).  Not only is this bill unnecessary to the protection of religious liberty in the United States, its language would be harmful to the constitutional rights of millions of Americans.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project Faculty Director, Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke, testified against the First Amendment Defense Act on behalf of twenty leading legal scholars when it was pending in Congress in 2016.  In her testimony before the House Governmental Oversight Committee she provided an in-depth analysis of the meaning and likely effects of the proposed legislation, were it to become law.  The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project was particularly compelled to provide testimony to the Committee because the first legislative finding set out in FADA declares that: “Leading legal scholars concur that conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real and should be addressed through legislation.”  As leading legal scholars we must correct this statement: we do not concur that conflicts between same-sex marriage and religious liberty are real, nor do we hold the view that any such conflict should be addressed through legislation. On the contrary, we maintained that religious liberty rights are already well protected in the U.S. Constitution and in existing federal and state legislation, rendering FADA both unnecessary and harmful.

The Act purports to protect free exercise of religion and prevent discrimination, yet in fact it risks unsettling a well-considered constitutional balance between religious liberty, the prohibition on government endorsement of or entanglement with religion, and other equally fundamental rights.

Professor Franke’s testimony can be found here.

This legislation failed to come to a vote and died in Committee in 2016.  It should receive the same fate today.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty.   We undertake approaches to the developing law of religion that both respects the importance of religious liberty and recognizes the ways in which too broad an accommodation of these rights threatens Establishment Clause violations and can unsettle a proper balance with other competing fundamental rights.  Our work takes the form of legal research and scholarship, public policy interventions, advocacy support, and academic and media publications.

To learn more, please visit us at:


Kira Shepherd, Director of the Racial Justice Project, to Moderate ABA Webinar on Civil Rights Protection in HHS

Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Announcement: Kira Shepherd, Director of Racial Justice Project, to Moderate ABA Webinar on Civil Rights Protection in HHS

Tomorrow, March 8th, 2018, Kira Shepherd, Director of the Racial Justice Program with the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project will be moderating a discussion for the American Bar Association, titled, “Civil Rights Protection for Discrimination? Recent Developments in the HHS Office of Civil Rights.” Kira will be joined by panelists:

  • Jennifer C. Pizer, Law and Policy Director at Lambda Legal
  • Susan Berke Fogel, Director of Reproductive Health at NHeLP, and
  • Jamille Fields, of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America

The webinar will begin at 1:00 pm EST; Registration is required via, at the following link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

A summary description of the discussion’s content follows:

On January 18, 2018, the Trump Administration announced a new division of the HHS Office for Civil Rights focused on the rights of health care providers to determine or deny care depending on the provider’s religious conviction. The following day, HHS issued a proposed rule to broaden the scope of existing laws that permit denials to care, and grant OCR new outreach, investigative, and enforcement authority to ensure that federal funding recipients defer to providers’ personal and institutional beliefs over patients’ needs. How are these developments likely to affect patients’ ability to obtain necessary health care? Is this new policy likely to have particular impacts on vulnerable communities such as transgender people, women and people of color? Does the new policy strike an appropriate balance between the rights of patients and the rights of providers? Our panel of experts will discuss the new division and rule in depth and offer their views of what appears to be expanded protection for health care refusals.

Kira Shepherd

Kira Shepherd is the Director of the Racial Justice Program at the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. Before joining Columbia Law School she was the Executive Director and Director of Campaigns at The Black Institute (TBI), an action think tank that leads advocacy work in the areas of immigration, education, the environment, and economic justice.  Prior to working at TBI, Kira was a Campaign Manager at, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, where she worked on criminal justice and corporate accountability campaigns.  She also worked at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center where she managed a city-wide youth advocacy project that was instituted in every public high school in Philadelphia.  Kira has also worked with Families for Freedom, a human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation, and Make the Road New York, the largest member-led economic justice group in New York.  Kira graduated from Rutgers University School of Law, Newark with a Juris Doctorate degree.