How the Madoff mess hits women

With two progressive organizations forced to shutter, it isn't just wealthy individuals being affected by the investment scandal.

Published January 7, 2009 4:54PM (EST)

For all the ink that's been spilled on the Madoff investment scandal, I've read nothing about its impact on funding for progressive women's causes -- which is considerable. Simply put, only a small pool of foundations are funding litigation and advocacy work related to criminal justice or constitutional rights; the pool that supports related programs targeted to women is smaller still. With the recent shuttering of two of Madoff's clients, the Picower Foundation and the JEHT Foundation, that pool has shrunk to a puddle.

Picower was one of a handful of foundations willing to stick their necks out and significantly fund the three organizations that handle virtually all major reproductive rights-related litigation and legal advocacy in the United States. Now the Center for Reproductive Rights needs to make up a $600,000 shortage in 2009; Planned Parenthood is out $484,000; the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project is off $200,000.

The economic crisis makes it particularly difficult to replace that kind of money. Meanwhile, there's a backlog of bad new laws that need to be contested. It's likely to grow this year with the popularity of mandatory ultrasound laws for abortion patients, one of the favorite new litigation strategies of antiabortion activists. (Seventeen states considered more than 30 ultrasound bills in 2007 alone.)

Consequently, there's a lot riding on the Center for Reproductive Rights' recent challenge to Oklahoma's law, the harshest in the country. It compels physicians one hour prior to performing an abortion to do an ultrasound on the patient and point out various features, while -- per CRR's press release -- "preventing a woman from suing her doctor if he or she intentionally withholds other information about the fetus, such as a severe developmental defect." (Translation: information that might influence a woman to terminate a risky pregnancy.)

But who's going to fund this very expensive suit? Or the challenges to similar laws that will pass while this case is in court? Women also stand to lose ground with the closing of the JEHT Foundation, one of the country's premier funders of criminal justice reform initiatives, including drug policy reform. Both issues have particular resonance for women. Thanks to stringent mandatory sentences for even first-time, nonviolent drug offenders, women's rate of incarceration grew by 757 percent between 1977 and 2006 -- nearly twice the rate for men. Women of color, who are scrutinized, prosecuted and punished more harshly for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, bear the brunt of these policies.

JEHT, like Picower, was a rare grant maker in an already select field. It funded initiatives aimed at ameliorating the hardships women face as a consequence of their involvement with the criminal system, including grants to the Corporation for Supportive Housing and the Stop Prisoner Rape Project. Additionally, Sarah From, director of public policy and  communications for the Women's Prison Association, lauds JEHT for "being one of the few foundations to fund criminal justice policy reform." (JEHT provided WPA with seed money to start its national Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.)

"They addressed a real need in the field," says From. "Now there will be fewer resources for this work overall, and we'll have to work harder to convince new funders to take a look at our issues for the first time."

Vivian Lindermayer, CRR's director of development, sounds uncannily similar talking about Picower. "They understood the critical role litigation and legal advocacy play in securing women's equal access to quality reproductive healthcare. Picower's closing will have a major impact on CRR and organizations like us."

The media's obsession with wealthy individuals who have been ruined by Madoff and feel betrayed is understandable. But when that story wears thin, let's hope the cameras will document the effect of the $42 million shortfall that progressive nonprofits will face in 2009 without funding from JEHT and Picower. We've only just begun to understand the implications of that loss for women's health and human rights.

By Nancy Goldstein

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