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  • This 11-Year-Old Was Locked Up Trying to Cross the Border. Read the Heartfelt Letter She Sent Obama.

    On Tuesday, the nation's top immigration court allowed a Guatemalan woman who fled her abusive husband to petition for asylum in the United States. It's a landmark ruling that immigrant rights advocates hope will protect women who have escaped horrific marital violence in countries besides Guatemala.

    One of those women is a Honduran named Rosemary. In June, she entered the US with Daniela, her 11-year-old daughter, and both were detained near the border. Rosemary and Daniela are currently detained in a makeshift facility in Artesia, New Mexico, set up by the Department of Homeland Security. They are seeking asylum after fleeing Daniela's father, who allegedly beat and choked Rosemary for three years before the two escaped. (Rosemary asked me to withhold their last name.)

    And Tuesday's ruling could be good news for the two of them—if they ever get out of detention. "It is very difficult to prepare a meaningful asylum case within a detention center," their lawyer, Allegra Love, wrote to me in an email. "There is limited legal counsel and communication is nearly impossible."

    In less than two weeks, Rosemary and Daniela have a bond hearing. If the judge grants a low bond, the family will pay it and live with friends in Houston. But if it's too high—or the judge denies them bail—then Rosemary has considered voluntarily going back to Honduras, where she claims her life is in danger.

    Why would Rosemary risk heading back to one of the world's most violent countries? According to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other immigrant rights groups, conditions in Artesia are terrible: The facility is overcrowded, privacy is nonexistent, and phone calls to family and attorneys are limited to two or three minutes. Daniela says she has lost 15 pounds in two months. "Her mother is not sure she wants to risk her child starving to death in New Mexico," Love says.

    So Love encouraged Daniela to write a letter to President Obama. Daniela did, and Love translated and shared with Mother Jones. Here's an excerpt:

    I don't like being here because we don't eat well, and I can't do what I did in Honduras so I need to go back or get in school. I am a very intelligent girl. I can speak English and I am learning French, and I believe that all the kids who are here in this center should leave. No one wants to be here. We are getting sick mentally. The jail is affecting us. Some officials are very rude. President Obama, I am asking you to please help us leave here and stay in this country. While I have been here I've been sick two times. I ask you from my heart for your help.

    Here's a copy of Daniela's letter and Love's handwritten translation:




    A copy of Rosemary's affidavit to the court, which Love shared with Mother Jones, corroborates the basic details of her daughter's letter.

    In one sense, Rosemary and Daniela are lucky: Artesia is notorious for deporting migrants so swiftly that people with legitimate asylum claims never have a chance to file an application. The fact that the mother and daughter are in touch with a lawyer—they met Love through her pro bono work for the American Immigration Lawyers Association—sets them apart from thousands of other women who stream through Artesia every month. (The Department of Homeland Security did not reply to requests for comment.)

    Their story also flies in the face of conservative claims that, following Tuesday's decision, domestic violence victims can earn "instant US citizenship." Their claim to asylum might have improved in the abstract—but there are still plenty of hurdles between Rosemary and Daniela and their first asylum hearing.

  • Here Are the Psychological Reasons Why an American Might Join ISIS

    "Its Islam over everything."

    So read the Twitter bio of Douglas McAuthur McCain—or, as he reportedly called himself, "Duale Khalid"—the San Diego man who is apparently the first American to be killed while fighting for ISIS. According to NBC News, McCain grew up in Minnesota, was a basketball player, and wanted to be a rapper. Friends describe him as a high school "goofball" and "a really nice guy." So what could have made him want to join the ranks of other Americans drawn towards militant Islam like John Walker Lindh and Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn? And how can we explain the dozens of other Americans who have also gone off to fight as jihadists in Syria, for ISIS and other militant groups?

    According to University of Maryland psychologist and terrorism expert Arie Kruglanski, who has studied scores of militant extremists, part of the clue may lie in that Twitter tagline of McCain's. Not just its content, but the mindset that it indicates—one that sees the world in sharp definition, no shades of gray. "These extreme ideologies have a twofold type of appeal," explains Kruglanski on the latest Inquiring Minds podcast. "First of all, they are very coherent, black and white, right or wrong. Secondly, they afford the possibility of becoming very unique, and part of a larger whole."

    That kind of belief system, explains Kruglanski, is highly attractive to young people who lack a clear sense of self-identity, and are craving a sense of larger significance. In fact, Kruglanski and his colleagues have found that one important psychological trait in particular seems to define these militants who leave their own culture and go off to embrace some ideology about which they may not even know very much. (We recently learned that Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two British jihadis who went to fight in Syria last year, ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before they departed.)

    Arie Kruglanski

    These young people seem to have what psychologists call a very strong "need for cognitive closure," a disposition that leads to an overwhelming desire for certainty, order, and structure in one's life to relieve the sensation of gnawing—often existential—doubt and uncertainty. According to Kruglanski, this need is something everyone can experience from time to time. We all sometimes get stressed out by uncertainty, and want answers. We all feel that way in moments, in particular situations, but what Kruglanski shows is that some of us feel that way more strongly, or maybe even all the time. And if you go through the world needing closure, it predisposes you to seek out the ideologies and belief systems that most provide it.

    Fundamentalist religions are among the leading candidates. Followers of militant Islam "know exactly what is right and what is wrong, how to behave in every situation," explains Kruglanski. "It's very normative and constraining, and a person who is a bit uncertain, has the need for closure, would be very attracted to an ideology of that kind." And for an outsider coming into Islam and drawn to that sense of certainty that it imparts, Kruglanski adds, you then want to prove yourself. To show your total devotion and commitment to the cause.

    That's not to say every fundamentalist becomes a terrorist, any more than it is to say that every person with a need for cognitive closure does. Other life factors definitely matter as well, and the need for cognitive closure is a trait measured on a continuum; it's not that you either have it our you don't. All of that said, the trait clearly does show up again and again in these extremists.

    How do we know? Kruglanski and his colleagues have directly studied violent extremists and measured them on these traits. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Kruglanski was able to study thousands of members of the so-called Tamil Tigers (more formally called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). A militant and terrorist group fighting to secede from Sri Lanka—a conflict fueled by both linguistic and religious differences—the Tigers had lost their civil war and surrendered, and many were now in a deradicalization program (thousands have since been released). "We administered questionnaires and interviews to about 10,000 of them, and we see how their thinking has evolved, and how it has changed," he says.

    Other psychological research points to conclusions highly consistent with those of Kruglanski. Psychologist Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia, for instance, has investigated a trait called "integrative complexity," which is clearly related to the need for cognitive closure and can be analyzed by examining an individual's public speeches or writing. It is literally a measure of the complexity of thought, and one of its key aspects is whether one accepts that there are a variety of legitimate views about an issue, rather than thinking there is only one right way.

    Suedfeld's work has shown that in global conflicts, a decrease in integrative complexity on the part of the contending parties—exhibited, for instance, in an escalation of black-and-white rhetoric—is a good predictor that violent conflict will occur. He has also shown, through analyzing the speeches of Osama bin Laden, that the terrorist leader's integrative complexity plummeted markedly in the run up to two major attacks: the twin embassy bombings in 1998 in Tanzania and Kenya, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden "was very purist in his ideology," adds Kruglanski—a trait suggesting his need for closure.

    The USS Cole, with a visible hole in its side following a terrorist attack Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

    And as it relates to terrorism, the need for cognitive closure has another, surprising implication. According to Kruglanski's research, when terrorists attack a population, the fear and uncertainty that are created (for instance, following the 9/11 attacks) induce a strong need for closure in the attacked population as a whole. And this creates a kind of extremism of its own. People become more suspicious of outsiders and much more supportive of strong security measures that could curtail individual liberties. And they tend to rally around what is perceived to be a strong leader.

    "The psychology of the terrorist victim—there is a high need for closure, high need for clarity, high need to commit to an ideology that would provide quick answers," says Kruglanski. That's certainly not saying that the victims of terrorism are themselves equivalent to terrorists. But it does mean that as psychological warfare, terrorism might very well work.

    So how do you overcome the need for closure, and achieve deradicalization, when much of this core impulse emerges from the very human need to manage uncertainty and find meaning and significance in life? Kruglanski celebrates community-based programs in Muslim countries that try to "inoculate" young people against extreme ideologies. He also praises deradicalization efforts that seek to weaken the ideology of former terrorists with the promise of potential release and reintegration.

    Both types of programs have shown at least some effectiveness, says Kruglanski. They help former extremists "find alternative ways of being significant, making a contribution, other than violence."

    This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of a new Pew report showing that social media may actually discourage the expression of some opinions (rather than enabling them), and of how neuroscientists and filmmakers are working together to understand how people's perceptions actually work in a movie theater.

    To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.

  • Is Boko Haram Teaming Up With ISIS for a Super Caliphate?

    Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group with a foothold in northeastern Nigeria that's known for its mass kidnappings and violent tactics, released a video earlier this month making an unprecedented claim: The group announced it had added the city of Gwoza to "the Islamic caliphate."

    Experts are unsure about the exact meaning of this claim, which was issued by Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau. There are at least two possibilities: The group has declared its own caliphate in Nigeria, or it has pledged allegiance to ISIS—that is, the so-called Islamic State run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

    Shekau's speech was relatively vague, but Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, thinks it's more likely that he was throwing in with ISIS—though "it's not entirely clear." Jenkins speculated that the wording of Shekau's statement, citing "the" Islamic caliphate, paired with Shekau's praise of Baghdadi (both in the video and earlier statements) suggests an attempt to link Boko Haram with ISIS. "If the leader of Boko Haram is saying his area is part of the Islamic State," Jenkins says, "he agrees that Baghdadi is the caliph…or the sole leader of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims."

    There is a "sense of solidarity" between the groups, says Mark Schroeder, an Africa Analyst for Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm. He suggested that the video is "good for public relations" and might attract further attention to Boko Haram, given the success ISIS has had in the Middle East.  

    But Schroeder points out it is unlikely that any attempt by Boko Haram to hitch its wagon to ISIS will result in "any material gains" for the Nigerian radical group, given the small swath of territory in which it operates. Also, the group already has other alliances with Islamist militants such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Boko Haram has never declared a single allegiance to one group, and has not been formally adopted by one.

    Ryan Cummings, the chief analyst on Africa for Red24, an international security consulting company, says it's unlikely that Boko Haram will try to join up with ISIS. He notes that Shekau has not yet made a formal oath of allegiance to Baghdadi, and he questions whether the group would risk alienating Al Qaeda, which has financially supported Boko Haram and trained some of its fighters. Al Qaeda has rejected ISIS on the basis of its brutality, and Cummings says that Boko Haram probably would not want to take sides between ISIS and Al Qaeda.

    Whatever Shekau meant in his video, the reality is that his group won't be carving out its own caliphate anytime soon.

    Abubakar Shekau announces that Gwoza is now part of "the Islamic caliphate." Obtained by Agence France-Presse, Youtube

    The Nigerian military has contained Boko Haram in the northeast, and surrounding countries and Western powers have joined the effort to defeat the group after it made international headlines by kidnapping almost 300 schoolgirls in April. 

    Boko Haram remains a "local" insurgency, says Schroeder, and Cummings notes that it is "unable to declare a caliphate in Nigeria" because it does not have a continuous territory.

    "Warfare today—it's about the manipulation of perceptions," says Jenkins. Perhaps Boko Haram's statement was just that—a vague statement designed to get some press. 

  • Why Coal Is (Still) Worse Than Fracking and Cow Burps

    Is fracking for natural gas good for the planet?

    To understand the pitched fight over this question, you first need to realize that for many years, we've been burning huge volumes of coal to get electricity—and coal produces a ton of carbon dioxide, the chief gas behind global warming. Natural gas, by contrast, produces half as much carbon dioxide when it burns, and thus, the fracking boom has been credited with a decline in US greenhouse gas emissions. So far so good, right?

    Umm, maybe. Recently on our Inquiring Minds podcast, we heard from Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, who contends that it just isn't that simple. Methane (the main component of natural gas) is also a hard-hitting greenhouse gas, if it somehow finds its way into the atmosphere. And Ingraffea argued that because of high leakage rates of methane from shale gas development, that's exactly what's happening. The trouble is that methane has a much greater "global warming potential" than carbon dioxide, meaning that it has a greater "radiative forcing" effect on the climate over a given time period (and especially over shorter time periods). In other words, according to Ingraffea, the CO2 savings from burning natural gas instead of coal is being canceled out by all the methane that leaks into the atmosphere when we're extracting and transporting that gas. (Escaped methane from natural gas drilling complements other preexisting sources, such as the belching of cows.)

    But not every scientist agrees with Ingraffea's methane-centered argument. In particular, Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geoscientist at the University of Chicago, has prominently argued that carbon dioxide "is in a class by itself" among greenhouse warming pollutants, because unlike methane, its impacts occur over such a dramatic timescale that they are "essentially irreversible." That's because of carbon dioxide's incredibly long-term effect on the climate: Given a large pulse of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much of it will still be there 10,000 years later. By contrast, even though methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide over a short timeframe, its atmospheric lifetime is only about 12 years.

    Applied to the debate over natural gas, that could mean that seeing gas displace coal is a good thing in spite of any concerns about methane leaks.

    To hear this counterpoint, we invited Pierrehumbert on Inquiring Minds as well. "You can afford to actually have a little bit of extra warming due to methane if you're using its a bridge fuel, because the benefit you get from reducing the carbon dioxide emissions stays with you forever, whereas the harm done by methane goes away more or less as soon as you stop using it," he explained on the show. You can listen to the interview—which is part of a larger show—below, beginning at about 4:40 (or you can leap to it by clicking here):

    Pierrehumbert's arguments are based on a recent paper that he published in the Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, extensively comparing carbon dioxide with more short-lived climate pollutants, like methane, black carbon, and ozone. The paper basically states that the metric everybody has been using to compare carbon dioxide with methane, the "global warming potential" described by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is deeply misleading.

    The IPCC, in its 2013 report, calls global warming potential the "default metric" for comparing the consequences, over a fixed period of time, of emitting the same volume of two different greenhouse gases. And according to the IPCC, using this approach, methane has 84 times the atmospheric effect that an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide does over a period of 20 years. But, it's crucial to remember that that's over 20 years; at the end of the period, the carbon dioxide will still be around and the methane won't. The metric, writes Humbert, is "completely insensitive" to any damages due to global warming that occur beyond a particular time window, "no matter how catastrophic they may be." Elsewhere, he calls the approach "crude."

    To see why, consider this figure from Pierrehumbert's paper, comparing the steady emission, over 200 years, of two hypothetical greenhouse gases (the solid blue and red lines). One gas lasts in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, and one that lasts only 10 years. Each has the same "global warming potential" at 100 years, but notice how the short lived gas' warming effect vanishes almost as soon as the emissions of it end:

    Comparison of two greenhouse gases that have the same "global warming potential" over 100 years but very different lifetimes.

    The gases in the figure aren't carbon dioxide and methane, but you get the point. The upshot, Pierrehumbert argues, is that it is almost always a good idea to cut CO2 emissions—even if doing so results in a temporary increase of methane emissions from leaky fracked wells. As he writes:

    …there is little to be gained from early mitigation of the short-lived gas [methane]. In contrast, any delay in mitigation of the long-lived gas ratchets up the warming irreversibly…the situation is rather like saving money for one's retirement—the earlier one begins saving, the more one's savings grow by the time of retirement, so the earlier one starts, the easier it is to achieve the goal of a prosperous retirement. Methane mitigation is like trying to stockpile bananas to eat during retirement. Given the short lifetime of bananas, it makes little sense to begin saving them until your retirement date is quite near.

    And that, in turn, implies that any displacing of coal with natural gas is a good thing for the climate. It's just less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plain and simple.

    Ingraffea disagrees. By email, he commented that Pierrehumbert "is correct that the long term risk to climate is from CO2, but he is willing to accept the almost certain short term consequences which can only be ameliorated by reductions in methane and black carbon."

    But interestingly, there is one major commonality between Ingraffea's point of view and that of Pierrehumbert. Namely, both emphasize the importance of getting beyond natural gas, and transitioning to 100 percent clean energy.

    Here's the logic: Because carbon dioxide is so bad for the climate, the fact that natural gas burning does produce some of it (even if not as much as coal) means that if cheap natural gas discourages the use of carbon-free sources like nuclear, solar, or wind energy, then that's also a huge climate negative. So just as natural gas is not nearly as bad as coal from a carbon perspective, it is also not nearly as good as renewable energy. And that, in turn, means that while natural gas can play a transitional role toward a clean energy future, that role has to be relatively brief.

    "It's useful as a bridge fuel," says Pierrehumbert, "but if using it as a bridge fuel just drives out renewables and other carbon-free sources of energy, it's really a bridge to nowhere."

  • How Does a 9-Year-Old Come to Shoot a Fully Automatic Weapon?

    A nine-year-old in Arizona accidentally killed her gun instructor on Monday when the Uzi he was teaching her to fire recoiled out of her control and shot him in the head. A video of the incident shows 39-year-old Charles Vacca switching the gun into automatic mode, then standing at the girl's side as she pulls the trigger and the weapon's force wrenches her arm in his direction.

    Many commentators have since expressed disbelief—though not the NRA, which was busy talking up fun for kids at gun ranges—that a child was permitted to wield a weapon with such firepower.

    But the shooting lesson was just normal business at the firing range where Vacca worked. Its "Bullets and Burgers" website advertises vacation packages like "Extreme Sniper Adventure": "At our range, you can shoot FULL auto on our machine guns," it reads. "Let 'em Rip!" It also says children between 8 and 17 can use its guns as long as a parent is present. The mother and father of the girl, whose name has not been made public, both were on Monday. Still, questions linger about the tragedy.

    How did Burgers and Bullets get all those weapons in the first place? Isn't it illegal to possess fully automatic weapons in the US?
    Under the federal Firearm Owners' Protection Act of 1986, it became a crime for civilians to own machine guns, but with a huge exception: Any gun made before the law went into effect is exempt. It's fine for civilians to resell and buy those old guns, too, as long as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives approves the sale. The approval process involves a $200 transfer tax and an FBI background check. A few states have banned automatic weapons entirely, but Arizona, one of the most gun-friendly states, is not one of them.

    Can it really be legal for an elementary school kid to shoot an Uzi?
    "Assuming it was a pre-1986 machine gun and the sale was legal, then yes," says Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Federal law prohibits children under 18 from buying guns, but they can still fire them with adult supervision.

    Less than three days after the tragedy, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office said it didn't expect to file criminal charges, according to CNN. Arizona authorities say the situation is being treated as an industrial accident, and job safety officials are investigating. So is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

    How hard is it to handle one of these guns?
    Quartz's Gwynn Guilford did the math: With the average American nine-year-old girl weighing about 60 pounds, and the average Uzi weighing seven to nine pounds, "That would be roughly equal to a 40-year-old man firing a 25-pound gun like, say, the Hotchkiss M1909 used in trench warfare in World Wars I and II—a weapon so heavy it sat on a tripod." (Ironically, the Uzi is designed to be relatively light in the hands of an adult, which can also make handling its powerful recoil more tricky.)

    The shooting range's manager said that the girl's parents had signed waivers and understood the range's rules. Still, he told the Associated Press, "I have regret we let this child shoot, and I have regret that [Vacca] was killed in the incident."

    Has anything like this happened before and what might it mean for the national gun debate?
    Sadly, this tragedy is not the first of its kind. An eight-year-old Massachusetts boy died at a gun show in 2008, when an Uzi he was firing at pumpkins kicked back and he shot himself in the head. The former police chief who organized the show and provided the child with the weapon was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

    That incident did have one positive outcome, in Cutilletta's view: It inspired neighboring Connecticut to pass a law banning anyone under 16 from using a machine gun at a shooting range.

    Shannon Watts, the founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said in a statement Wednesday that she hopes the Arizona case will galvanize the national debate about guns specifically with regard to children. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victim and the young girl involved in this tragedy," Watts said. "We hope this event spurs dialogue on the importance of gun safety and responsibility."

    Do deadly gun accidents involving children usually result in nobody being held legally responsible?
    Indeed, that's the outcome in the vast majority of cases. A recent Mother Jones investigation found that out of 72 cases in 2013 in which kids handling guns accidentally killed themselves or other kids, adults were held criminally liable in only 4.

  • Top Immigration Court Hands Huge Win to Battered Women Seeking Asylum. Conservatives Freak Out.

    On Tuesday, the country's top immigration court ruled that some migrants escaping domestic violence may qualify for asylum in the United States. The decision, from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), is a landmark: It's the first time that this court has recognized a protected group that primarily includes women. The ruling offers a glimmer of hope to asylum-seekers who have fled horrific abuse. The decision has also infuriated conservatives, who claim that the ruling is a veritable invitation to undocumented immigrants and marks a vast expansion of citizenship opportunities for foreigners.

    The case involved a Guatemalan woman who ran away from her abusive husband. "This abuse included weekly beatings," the court wrote in its summary of her circumstances. "He threw paint thinner on her, which burned her breast. He raped her." The police refused to intervene, and on Christmas 2005, she and her three children illegally entered the United States.

    Before Tuesday's decision, immigration judges routinely denied asylum to domestic violence victims because US asylum law does not protect people who are persecuted on account of their gender. The law only shields people who are persecuted because they are members of a certain race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. Tuesday's ruling, however, recognized "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship" as a unique social group—giving the Guatemalan woman standing to make an asylum claim.

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  • Your Cellphone Company Says Your Location Info Is Private. Think Again.

    On Sunday, the Washington Post published an exposé revealing that private companies are peddling surveillance systems to foreign governments that track the location of cellphone users in the United States and abroad. The report raised a basic question: How can this be happening when cellphone companies generally promise not to disclose their customers' location information without their consent? The main problem is that location information is available on a global network that can be accessed by thousands of companies. And in the wake of the Post story, US cellphone companies are refusing to discuss how this squares with their privacy policies, or say what they are doing to keep their customers' whereabouts confidential.

    Here's what's going on: Carriers collect location information from cellphone towers and share it with each other through a global network called SS7. This allows a US carrier to find a customer even if she hops a plane to India. But according to the Post, surveillance systems makers have gained access to SS7 and are using it to grab location data, allowing these firms to pinpoint people within a few city blocks.

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  • Here's What Texas' Disputed Abortion Law Has Been Doing to Clinics

    Update (8/29/14):  Judge Lee Yeakel of the US District Court in Austin blocked a key provision of HB 2 today. This portion of the law, which required abortion clinics to meet the standards of hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers, was set to go into effect Monday, September 1.

    The state of Texas has already announced it will appeal Judge Yeakel's decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. This past March, the Fifth Circuit upheld a different provision of HB 2, reversing a block on the rule also issued by Yeakel.

    At the new Planned Parenthood clinic in Dallas earlier this month, exam rooms were stocked, desks, chairs, and computers were installed, and even a few phones had started to ring. Construction workers came in and out, and the waiting room stood empty, save for a corner stack of moving boxes.

    "We're just waiting for furniture," said Kelly Hart, senior director of government relations for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, while giving a tour of the clinic, which opened to patients two weeks ago.

    This facility, a preexisting ambulatory surgical center that Planned Parenthood purchased and refurbished, will cost the organization $6.1 million. It's an unexpected bill they've spent months fundraising to cover, because a year ago, Planned Parenthood had no plans for a new Dallas facility: A different clinic already provided safe, legal abortions and vasectomies to patients.

    "It was working just fine," says Hart.

    But come next week, abortions can no longer legally be performed at that old facility thanks to HB 2, the omnibus abortion bill that made national headlines last summer after Texas Sen. Wendy Davis' 11-hour filibuster. The law requires that abortions—though not vasectomies—be performed in ambulatory surgical centers, hospital-like facilities that specialize in outpatient surgery. This provision goes into effect on September 1.

    Ahead of this deadline, women's health care providers have raced to meet HB 2's burdensome requirements, spending millions of dollars and countless hours of fundraising and construction labor. Converting a medical facility into a full-blown ambulatory surgical facility can be very expensive. Texas has 114 pages of regulations governing ASCs, which mandate wide, gurney-accommodating hallways, larger operating rooms, and sterile ventilation. According to one Texas provider, it will cost them about $40,000 more each month to operate an ASC than it would a regular clinic.

    In the face of the law's requirements, all but eight abortion clinics in the state will close by September 1. Many were forced to lock their doors earlier this year as other HB 2 provisions went into effect, including a rule that required doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they perform abortions by the end of October 2013.

    While supporters of HB 2 argue that the ASC requirements are vital for women's health and safety, medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have repeatedly noted that typical doctor's offices are fully able to perform medically safe abortions, and that ASCs do little to enhance the standard of care. (Texas has required that second-trimester abortions take place in ASCs since 2003.)

    Come September 1, about 750,000 Texas women will live 200 or more miles from the nearest abortion provider. There were only 10,000 women in that situation just a year ago.

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  • In Wake of Arizona Uzi Killing, NRA Tweets About Kids Having Fun With Guns

    There's no shortage of grim gun news in the United States, including numerous killings involving children, but there was something particularly disturbing about an incident on Monday in which a 9-year-old girl accidentally shot her instructor to death with an Uzi. The tragedy unfolded at an Arizona gun range near Las Vegas that draws visitors through a tour company called Bullets and Burgers. How on earth was such a child allowed to fire such a powerful weapon on fully automatic, by a person who knows enough about firearms to have served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan? See video of the incident below via the New York Times; the clip doesn't show the actual moment of tragedy, but it's plenty chilling nonetheless.

    Reactions to the news, as you might expect, have ranged from somber to mystified to angry. But with the story making the rounds on social media, only those latter two applied to a tweet posted on Wednesday afternoon by NRA Women, which is part of the National Rifle Association's Women's Programs and is sponsored by gun manufacturing giant Smith & Wesson. "7 Ways Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range" the tweet announced, linking to a recent story that details how kids can get bored with target practice if not properly entertained. NRA Women posted the tweet at 1:51 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday; by about 3 p.m. it had been removed, but not before I and others took a screenshot of it:

    The list of options in the article included firing at animal, zombie, and even exploding targets, but surely there was a better time for NRA Women to promote them. Historically the NRA is known for its disciplined and effective messaging. But more recently, as it has branched out to cater to children and women and minorities, America's top gun lobbying group seems to be misfiring, again and again.

  • The Dirty Secret Behind Europe's Renewable Energy Industry

    This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    If you're driving through the South and you see a denuded field filled with stubby new plantings where lush forest once stood, the blame might lie with an unlikely culprit: the European Union and its well-intentioned clean energy rules.

    In March 2007, the E.U. adopted climate and energy goals for 2010 to 2020. The 27 member countries set a goal of reducing carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020 and increasing renewables to 20 percent of their energy portfolio. Unfortunately, they underestimated the carbon intensity of burning wood (a.k.a. "biomass") for electricity, and they categorized wood as a renewable fuel.

    The result: E.U. countries with smaller renewable sectors turned to wood to replace coal. Governments provided incentives for energy utilities to make that switch. Now, with a bunch of new European wood-burning power plants having come online, Europeans need wood to feed the beast. But most European countries don't have a lot of available forest left to cut down. So they're importing our forests, especially from the South.

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