Political Intelligence

Peace in Austin, but Not in Lufkin



The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in a case to determine whether the state will pay the bill when a poor woman seeks a medically-necessary abortion. The case, filed by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy against the Texas Department of Health, pits a group of doctors and clinics against the usual anti-abortion suspects and attorney general John Cornyn–who, in his appeal of a December 2000 Third Court of Appeals decision favoring the plaintiffs, has argued that the state should restrict such spending to encourage child birth over abortion.

Federal law does not allow federal Medicaid funds to pay abortion costs except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. But state funds are another matter. (The Medicaid program is funded by both state and federal money.) The Texas Legislature passed an Equal Rights Amendment thirty years ago, which provides stronger footing for the plaintiffs in this case than those who lost a similar case before the U.S. Supreme Court had. “It’s gender discrimination, if we say, if you’re a poor man we’re going to provide any medically necessary procedure, but if you’re a poor woman and you’ve got diabetes or any other condition that can make it dangerous to carry a pregnancy to term, too bad,” says Katherine Mauzy, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. While anti-abortion groups have argued that a decision for the plaintiffs would open the floodgates to taxpayer-funded abortions for all poor women, “it has nothing to do with abortion on demand,” says Mauzy. “The sole issue is if it’s medically necessary.” Similar cases filed by CRLP have succeeded in New Mexico and Connecticut on equal-rights grounds.


A delicatessen in East Texas was terrorized recently, possibly due to the owner’s environmental activism. On the evening of November 17, gunshots pierced the front windows of the Lunch Box, a Lufkin restaurant whose owner, Diane Avriett, has opposed letting the local paper mill dump more waste in the Angelina River. Avriett is one of the leaders of a coalition which is trying to prevent the mill, owned by Abitibi Consolidated, from obtaining a permit to increase the amount of wastewater it is allowed to discharge. She serves as chairperson of the Piney Woods chapter of the Sierra Club, which meets at the restaurant.

“I don’t know whether this (the shooting) had anything to do with my involvement in the fight against the paper mill,” says Avriett. What is certain, she says, is that “I’m not a very popular person here with the businesspeople.” The president of the local Chamber of Commerce, she says, urged a boycott of her restaurant even though she’s been a dues-paying member of the chamber for 13 years. She has also been asked not to attend Chamber of Commerce functions.

“I’ve lived here all my life but was not aware of what was going on with the paper mill,” she says, until a friend informed her about the mill’s application for a new, less restrictive wastewater permit. Now Avriett suspects that effluent from the mill is what decimated the local black bass population in 1998. “It’s supposed to be the water source for Lufkin in 2005,” she says. “There are little kids who play in that river.” According to Myron Hess with the National Wildlife Federation, the EPA declined the mill’s request for a downgraded permit earlier this year; its current permit application is with the TNRCC .


Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies was the keynote speaker on the first full day of the 14th annual Peace Action National Congress, which met in Austin on the second weekend in November. Much of the conference was devoted to discussion of the ongoing bombing campaign in Afghanistan; Bennis, who has written extensively on the U.S. and the United Nations, took the Bush Administration to task for its version of so-called “coalition building.” President Bush used “the language of multi-lateralism in the service of unilateral ends” by telling the international community they’re either with the U.S. or with the terrorists, she said. She said the idea that there’s United Nations backing for the bombing just isn’t true–the conditions that justify military action under Article 51 of the U.N. charter haven’t been met. Such a use of force can only be employed to stop an imminent attack on a country’s territory or if the U.N. Security Council okays it. The Security Council did convene within 24 hours of the tragedy and expressed its sorrow and regret, but it remained “seized of the issue”–U.N.-speak for taking time to think. Nevertheless, the U.S. took the response as a green light.

The question we should be asking ourselves, Bennis continued, is not what the suicide bombers were thinking when they killed so many innocent victims, but instead “why so many people across the world think it’s okay.” “People watching [Islamic satellite station] Al Jazeera have been watching heavy reporting of the effects of U.S. sanctions in Iraq and they’ve reacted exactly the same as we have to the World Trade Center tragedy,” she said. Bennis said people in the Middle and Far East see the U.S. as far more responsive to its citizens than their own governments are to them. Thus when U.S. policy seems arrogant or callous, they wonder why Americans don’t do something about it. She laid a lot of the blame on this front at the feet of the American media for failing to keep citizens abreast of policies carried out in their names in Islamic nations.