Signs of the Times (12/11/14)

Abortion Rate at Lowest Level since Roe v. Wade

The abortion rate in the United States has declined to its lowest point since abortion’s legalization in 1973, according to an annual report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Forty-seven states reported 730,322 abortions in 2011 to the CDC (California, Maryland, and New Hampshire didn’t report their data). According to those reports, the abortion rate has fallen by 14 percent since 2002, to 13.9 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. The abortion rate among white women is 7.8 for every 1,000 births, compared to 16.1 for Hispanic women and 25.8 for black women. ). Teen abortions have declined from 29.2 percent of total abortions in 1980 to 13.9 percent in 2011.

The cause for the decline may come from multiple sources. The CDC partly credits contraceptive availability because most abortions stem from unplanned pregnancies. However, David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, identifies two social trends leading to abortion’s decline. First, the pro-life movement has successfully increased the number of people who view abortion as morally wrong: 51 percent say it’s wrong while only 38 percent view it as morally acceptable, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. Second, single motherhood has become more socially acceptable than in previous decades, according to Frum. But the majority of abortions still involve unmarried women (85.5 percent.

Jesus and Bible OK’d for Air Force Cadets

After cadets at the Air Force Academy were censored for posting Bible verses on the erasable white-boards outside their rooms, thousands sent petitions to Congress and the Air Force. Now the U.S. Air Force has relented, and changed AFI 1-1, which had restricted Christians, but now specifically allows airmen to talk about Jesus Christ in uniform. The Air Force’s revised regulations governing religious expression contain a new clause guaranteeing airmen ‘the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs,’ reports the Military Times.

Senate Releases Controversial Report on CIA Torture

A report condemning the CIA’s use of torture against suspected terrorists was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Newspapers around the world led their front pages with the explosive story Wednesday. There has been widespread global condemnation of the CIA’s use of torture. The hotly disputed Senate report on the CIA’s brutal interrogation tactics is tearing open barely healed political wounds first opened after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The report found CIA tactics were more brutal than previously known and accused the agency of keeping the Bush White House and Congress in the dark about them. The reaction of a deeply polarized Congress to the long delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report, not to mention fierce CIA push back, shows how hard it will be to build any national consensus on the proper approach to a threat like terrorism. Former Vice President Dick Cheney slammed the Senate report on CIA interrogation techniques Wednesday, calling it “full of crap,” and a “terrible piece of work” that was “deeply flawed.”

President Obama banned “enhanced interrogation techniques” like water boarding and sleep deprivation, which were the subject of the report released Tuesday, soon after taking office in 2009. The debate over interrogation techniques has left Obama facing an uncomfortable rift between two allies, the C.I.A. director and Democrats on the committee that produced the report. Republican senators and former C.I.A. officials say the agency was advised that its methods were not torture, and that the program played a critical role in dismantling Al Qaeda. All U.S. facilities around the world are being urged to review security and brace for potentially explosive reaction, with concern particularly high in the Middle East and North Africa.

Police Brutality Protests Continue

More than 1,000 protesters marched for hours on city streets, shutting down Interstate 80 and stopping a train in the third night of demonstrations Monday over police killings in Missouri, New York and Phoenix. They confronted a line of police officers in riot gear outside police headquarters before heading to a BART train station, prompting authorities to close it. Protesters then headed west on University Avenue, a four-lane divided street to shut down Interstate 80 in both directions. Dozens of protesters also marched to the railroad tracks, blocking an Amtrak train. A protester held up a sign “Black lives matter” in front of the stopped train. Hundreds of protesters rallied in London Wednesday at one of Europe’s largest shopping malls to show solidarity with U.S. demonstrations over the killing of unarmed black men by white officers.

95 School Shootings in Two Years since Newtown

School shootings in the USA during the two years since the Newtown, Conn., massacre often involved a minor taking a gun from home and using it in a confrontation that started out as an argument, according to a new report by two groups who went to Washington, D.C., Tuesday seeking political action to prevent gun violence. The two groups, whose definition of school shootings includes those involving gang violence, unintentional shootings and suicides, used news accounts to compile a list of 95 shootings that occurred in 33 states; 23 of the incidents resulted in at least one death. All told, the shootings caused 45 deaths and 78 gunshot injuries, according to the report from Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Forty-nine of the shootings occurred at K-12 schools and 46 on college or university campuses. Of the 40 K-12 shootings in which the shooter’s age was known, 28 were committed by minors. Of the 16 K-12 shootings where it was possible to determine the source of the firearm, 10 of the young perpetrators got their guns from home. Critics say that most if not all of the 24 cases where gun origin could not be determined were from sources outside the home.

Americans Worried about Obama’s Use of Executive Orders

Majorities of American voters think President Barack Obama exceeded his authority with recent executive actions on immigration and are worried he may be permanently altering the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution, according to a new Fox News poll released Wednesday. By an 8-point margin, more voters disapprove (51 percent) than approve (43 percent) of the specific policy changes Obama made that will, among other things, allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain temporarily in the United States to work. Meanwhile, nearly three quarters think this easing of immigration laws will encourage more people to enter the country illegally (74 percent). Even more voters are unhappy with how Obama made these changes. By a 60-38 percent margin, voters disapprove of the president bypassing Congress to change how the government deals with illegal immigration. More than two-thirds — 68 percent of voters — are concerned that Obama’s use of executive orders and unilateral actions may be “permanently altering” our country’s system of checks and balances.

Court Decision Allows Driver’s Licenses for ‘Dreamers’ in Arizona

Barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona “dreamers” may be able to get driver’s licenses as early as next Tuesday, ending a ban imposed two years ago by Gov. Jan Brewer. On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request by Brewer to keep on hold that panel’s July ruling against her ban while the state’s attorney general prepares a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. Gov.-elect Doug Ducey has said he supports Brewer’s policy of denying driver’s licenses to dreamers but will follow whatever the final court mandate may be on the matter. Unless the Supreme Court issues a stay, the 9th Circuit’s July ruling will take effect next Tuesday. At that point, U.S. District Judge David Campbell in Phoenix can issue an injunction that would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to issue driver’s licenses to dreamers who otherwise qualified.

“Dreamers’ are unauthorized immigrants who are under the age of 31; entered the United States before age 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony, a “significant” misdemeanor; and are currently in school, graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military. Immigrants who meet these criteria are commonly referred to as “DREAMers” because they comprise most (though not all) of the individuals who meet the general requirements of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Congress Reaches Spending Deal

Top lawmakers agreed to $1.1 trillion government funding bill late Tuesday, just two days before federal agencies are due to run out of money. The negotiating breakthrough likely means the government will stay open as usual, avoiding a potential shutdown. The release of the bill was held up until late Tuesday night as negotiators haggled over a series of controversial policy provisions. “While not everyone got everything they wanted, such compromises must be made in a divided government,” Congressional negotiators said.

The measure bars the District of Columbia from using any money to implement a law the city recently passed to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill maintain that Washington city leaders should be able to carry out a policy voters supported, but Congress has authority over the city’s finances. One of the provisions will allow for increased political donations, specifically the amount donors can give to national parties to help fund conventions, building funds and legal proceedings, such as recounts. Rather just giving the current cap of $32,400, donors would be able to give up to $97,200 for each of those actions — for a total of $324,000 annually

Some Democrats are already expressing opposition to a provision that repeals what they view as a key financial regulation that was part of a package of reforms for Wall Street banks. The spending bill does away with a rule that prevented banks from using funds backed by taxpayers to trade derivatives, which they argue contributed to the financial collapse in 2008. The resolution of many of these policy issues is critical to the bill’s prospects for passing the House and Senate.

Economic News

Crude oil prices accelerated their six-month slide Monday, plunging to fresh five-year lows. Oil prices have dropped 40% since June. A major energy company slashed its drilling and exploration budget by more than 20% and fresh reports pointed to slowing global economic growth. The latest drop in oil is likely to fuel fresh cuts in gasoline prices in the weeks ahead, saving consumers, shippers and airlines billions. Oil prices have yet to find a bottom. With oil prices in free fall, the fear is that hunting for new shale in the U.S. may just not be that profitable. ConocoPhillips became the first major U.S. oil company to reveal that it is slashing spending for 2015. There are expectations that more energy companies will follow.

The Energy Department again slashed its prediction for next year’s average price of gasoline across the U.S., this time to $2.60 a gallon. That would be 23% below this year’s projected average and the lowest full-year average since 2009.

Retail sales in November beat analyst expectations with a jump of 0.7% to $449.3 billion, the largest monthly gain since March. Sales excluding autos increased 0.5%. October’s sales increase was revised up to a jump of 0.5% from 0.3%.

The Labor Department says weekly applications fell 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 294,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up a slight 250 to 299,250. Over the past 12 months, the four-week average has declined by 10 percent.

The federal debt has risen 70 percent under President Obama, and when it hit $18 trillion last week, it meant that each household in the U.S. now carries the burden of $124,000 in national debt alone — or $56,378 per individual. David Stockman, White House budget chief under President Reagan, notes it took the United States 205 years to reach $1 trillion in debt, but only 33 more years to get to the current $18 trillion debt mountain. And he says things are about to get worse. Stockman estimates that today’s federal debt amounts to 106 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and when state and local debt is factored in, total government debt is 120 percent of GDP – a load that would put many Americans in a homeless shelter if they owed it money on an individual basis. He further estimates that the U.S. will generate at least $15 trillion of new public debt in the decade ahead. At that point, Stockman estimates America’s public debt will total a whopping 140 percent of GDP.

Persecution Watch

A government official in France maintains the number of anti-Semitic threats and incidents has more than doubled during 2014. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve shared the staggering numbers during a rally on Sunday to protest a violent attack on a young Jewish couple, according to Christian Today. Recently, a 19-year-old Jewish woman was raped. Approximately 550,000 Jews live in France, the largest Jewish population base in Europe. “We feel that something has changed: it’s no longer just graffiti or minor incidents, these are death threats [against the Jewish community],” Roger Cukierman, the head of Conseil Représentatif des Institutions.

An eighth grade student in Texas was repeatedly slammed to the ground by police after he refused to remove his rosary beads at a football game. Sam Houston Middle School student Jacob Herrera had been given permission to wear the beads for religious and sentimental reasons: his older brother had given Herrera the beads before his death. The Christian Post reports police told Herrera to remove the rosary because it was a gang symbol. Herrera refused, telling the officer that he had permission to wear the beads. The officer ordered Herrera to put his arms behind his back, which the student refused. Herrera also refused other orders from the officer which led to his arrest and physical mistreatment. The Rutherford Institute founder and attorney John Whitehead said it was “excessive force” and “is a matter of religious freedom and a First Amendment right.”

Middle East

Palestinian Authority minister without portfolio Ziad Abu Ein died on Wednesday following a confrontation with Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank village of Turmusiya. The IDF says they believe he died of a heart attack following a shouting match with the soldiers but Palestinian officials insist he died as a result of inhaling tear gas fired by the soldiers in an effort to break up the unauthorized protest and a Reuters photographer who was present said he saw IDF soldiers striking him shortly before he collapsed, after which he was put in an ambulance and rushed to a hospital in Ramallah but died en route. In comments echoed by other PA officials, President Mahmoud Abbas, in a statement, called Abu Ein’s death “a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept.” Security forces were bracing for more violence in the wake of the incident.

Islamic State

ISIS has released a set of photos on social media featuring young children learning to use assault rifles such as AK47s. The children appeal to be about 10 years old and are shown wearing full combat gear and masks as they are trained to kill. The terrorist organization is reportedly using the children in battle in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ abuse of children has been documented for months. In September, CNN released a report of a 13-year-old boy who had escaped an ISIS camp and said he had been force to witness beheadings, stonings and a crucifixion. “When we go to the mosque, they order us to come the next day at a specific time and place to [watch] heads cut off, lashings or stonings. We saw a young man who did not fast for Ramadan, so they crucified him for three days, and we saw a woman being stoned [to death] because she committed adultery,” he said.

Syria

As winter approaches, United Nations funds to feed Syrian refugees had dried up. According to Christian Today, the World Food Programme petitioned donors for funds to ensure refugees can survive the harshest months of winter. A week after launching its social media campaign to raise emergency funding for food assistance aimed at Syrian refugees, WFP announced recently that it had not only reached its initial goal of $64 million, but also exceeded it thanks to a “massive expression” of support from the public, the private sector and donor countries. “This outpouring of support in such a short time is unprecedented,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, in a statement.

Afghanistan

A suicide bomber targeted a vehicle carrying Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Kabul on Thursday morning. The ensuing blast killed five and wounded 12 others, the defense ministry said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mali

French troops, in coordination with Malian forces in northern Mali, killed a senior jihadist leader wanted by the United States, the French military announced Thursday. Ahmed el Tilemsi was the head and co-founder of a jihadist group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The U.S. government had formally designated el Tilemsi a terrorist and offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to him. A French military spokesman, Col. Gilles Jaron, told CNN that about 10 suspected terrorists were “neutralized” — which means killed or taken captive, according to the French military — in the operation in al-Mourabitoun.

Hong Kong

Police arrested dozens of pro-democracy protesters Thursday as teams with sledgehammers and chainsaws demolished camps and tore down tents and supply stations established by activists as part of a mass civil disobedience movement that has lasted more than 10 weeks. The police clearance marked the end of the pro-democracy occupation that has paralyzed parts of the south China city. Among those arrested was popular singer Denise Ho, who led the crowd in chanting “civil disobedience, we are fearless!” reported the South China Morning Post newspaper. Four members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the key campaign organizers, also were arrested, the group tweeted.

China

China’s skyrocketing appetite for ivory is leading to the unsustainable slaughter of African elephants. As prices for precious ivory goods have surged in China, the number of poached elephants has also escalated. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said 100,000 African elephants have been killed for their ivory in just the past three years. “African elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation,” unless China does more to end the sale of ivory, said Douglas-Hamilton. China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory as newly-wealthy Chinese consumers have developed a taste for exotic luxury goods. The wholesale price of raw tusks has tripled in just four years since 2010, while retail prices for finished ivory have increased exponentialy. Retail prices in Beijing, for example, have increased more than 13 times since 2002.

Weather

A powerful storm packing heavy rain, high winds and snow for higher elevations was pushing through northern California Thursday, threatening to trigger flash floods and landslides in the drought-plagued state. The worst of the storm will be in northern California on Thursday where widespread rainfall totals of 3 to 5 inches are expected. Meanwhile, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are expected to get up to 2 feet of snow. Sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph will be found in the lower elevations with wind gusts over 50 mph possible. The higher elevations may see gusts up to 80 mph and blizzard warnings are in effect for parts of the Sierra Nevada above 6,500 feet. The storm was expected to be one of the strongest in terms of wind and rain intensity in more than five years for parts of northern California. Three lanes of eastbound I-80 six miles north of El Cerrito, California, were blocked just after 6 a.m. ET after a semi-truck crashed into a 2,000-pound Eucalyptus tree blown onto the road by wind gusts. The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) said that it had activated more than 3,000 employees and more than 1,500 pieces of equipment to deal with road-related hazards from the storm.

A winter storm dumped snow and rain on the Northeast and New England for several days this week, causing big problems in some areas. The fierce nor’easter also brought strong winds and flooding to coastal areas. Two people died in crashes on slippery roads during the storm. Snow totals have inched toward the two-foot mark in some parts of upstate New York.

A massive storm system is hitting parts of Europe, bringing plenty of headaches to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The storm has already whipped up tremendous winds, including a pair of 96-mph gusts in Iceland Monday night and sustained hurricane-force winds at a major natural gas platform off the North Sea coast of Norway. Some 17,000 homes in the Western Isles lost power Wednesday, according to the BBC. The huge area of winds with this system whipped up seas as high as 35 feet northwest of the British Isles. Those waves are expected to grow even larger thanks to the storm’s slow eastward movement.

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