Signs of the Times (5/16/16)

One in Four Worldwide Pregnancies End in Abortion

New research has revealed that one in four pregnancies now end in abortion, according to ChristianToday.com. The statistic comes from research conducted by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute. One in four pregnancies amounts to around 56 million abortions every year. The research also found that while the abortion rate in developed countries has declined in recent years, the abortion rate in third world countries has increased. There were about 50 million abortions every year between 1990-1994, according to the research, but that number has risen to 56 million between 2010-2014. In developed countries, the abortion rate has dropped 10 points, from 24 to 14 among 1,000 reproductive-age women. The research also found that the abortion rate remained mostly the same whether abortion was legal or not. “All too often, abortion is seen and sold as the only solution for mothers who are encouraged to view an unplanned pregnancy as a problem that needs solving. But we should be making sure mothers are fully aware that there are different options out there, other than termination,” said Nola Leach, chief executive of the Christian charity CARE.

Obama Administration Promotes Transgender Bathroom Policy in Public Schools

The Obama administration on Friday directed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. A joint letter from the Departments of Education and Justice was sent out Friday to public schools with guidelines to ensure that “transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” The announcement comes amid heated debate over transgender rights in schools and public life, which includes a legal standoff between the administration and North Carolina over its controversial House law prescribing bathroom use based on biological gender. The guidance goes beyond the bathroom issue, touching upon privacy rights, education records and sex-segregated athletics, all but guaranteeing transgender students the right to identify in school as they choose.

Liberty Counsel reports that the directive also says that school cannot require transgender students to have a medical diagnosis, undergo any medical treatment, or produce a birth certificate or other identification document before treating them consistent with their gender identity – therefore, just take them at their word? The letter does not carry the force of law but the message was clear: Fall in line or face loss of federal funding. Conservatives called it an illegal overreach that will put children in danger while advocates for transgender rights hailed it as a breakthrough for civil rights. Prominent politicians across the nation are defiantly standing up against the guidance from Washington. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick accused the Obama administration of “blackmail” and called the directive “social engineering.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, on Twitter, promised a fight: “Obama can’t rewrite the Civil Rights Act. He’s not a king.”

  • In a nation where civil rights supersede God’s law, judgment awaits

ObamaCare Pressures Insurers to Cover Sex Change Operations

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a final regulation Friday that will pressure health insurers to cover sex change operations, which would then be subsidized by taxpayers through Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. The final rule came the same day the Obama administration ordered schools to let children use whatever bathroom or locker room matches “their chosen gender identity,” or risk losing federal funding. The agency released its final “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities” rule, which enforces Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. The regulation “prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability; enhances language assistance for individuals with limited English proficiency; and protects individuals with disabilities,” the agency said in a release. Doctors and health insurers also cannot deny “health care or health coverage based on an individual’s sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, gender identity, and sex stereotyping.”

 Judge Rules Obama Administration’s Obamacare Spending Unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled on Thursday that the Obama administration is unconstitutionally spending money to fund Obamacare. House Republicans brought the charges against the Obama administration, and Collyer ruled in their favor. The funding in question is about $175 billion that the Obama administration is paying health insurance companies to lower the co-payments for lower income customers. According to the Associated Press, the “disputed subsidies help lower-earning people afford out-of-pocket costs such as annual insurance deductibles and co-payments when they visit doctors.” But House Republicans say they never allocated money in the federal budget to fund this initiative, and that they even denied an Obama administration’s request for it. However, the Obama administration spent the money regardless of Congress’ decision. Collyer ruled that was illegal, since it is the House’s responsibility to establish budgets and spending limits. The ruling was the latest indication that the eight-member Supreme Court is exploring every avenue to avoid 4-to-4 deadlocks, even if the resulting action avoids deciding the question it had agreed to address, notes the New York Times.

Supreme Court sends ObamaCare Contraception Mandate Case Back to Lower Courts

The Supreme Court punted Monday on a challenge by religious-affiliated employers to ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, sending the dispute back to the lower courts. The justices had been considering whether religious-affiliated institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity of nuns, can be exempt from having to pay for — or indirectly allow — birth control and other reproductive health coverage in their health plans. But the court did not rule on the merits. Instead, the justices sent the cases back to the appeals courts to make new decisions based on recent statements.

Many U.S. Doctors Refuse to Take Obamacare Patients

The New York Times reports that Amy Moses and her circle of self-employed small-business owners were supporters of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. They bought policies on the newly created New York State exchange. But when they called doctors and hospitals in Manhattan to schedule appointments, they were dismayed to be turned away again and again with a common refrain: “We don’t take Obamacare,” the umbrella epithet for the hundreds of plans offered through the president’s signature health legislation. Though their insurance cards look the same as everyone else’s — with names like Liberty and Freedom from insurers like Anthem or United Health — the plans are often very different from those provided to most Americans by their employers. Many say they feel as if they have become second-class patients. Some early studies of the impact of the Affordable Care Act plans are proving patients’ grumbling justified: Compared with the insurance that companies offer their employees, Obamacare plans require higher patient outlays for medicines and include a more limited number of doctors and hospitals, referred to as a narrow network policy.

Air Force Depleted by Budget Cuts

Years of budget cuts have taken an undeniable toll on the U.S. Air Force. They are now short 4,000 airmen to maintain its fleet, short 700 pilots to fly them and short vital spare parts necessary to keep their jets in the air. The shortage is so dire that some have even been forced to scrounge for parts in a remote desert scrapheap known as “The Boneyard.”  Fox News visited two U.S. Air Force bases to see the resource problems first-hand, following an investigation into the state of U.S. Marine Corps aviation last month. Many of the Airmen reported feeing “burnt out” and “exhausted” due to the current pace of operations, and limited resources to support them. “We have only 20 aircraft assigned on station currently. Out of those 20 only nine are flyable,” Master Sgt. Bruce Pfrommer said.

Homicides Are Up Again in More Than Two Dozen Major U.S. Cities

The number of homicides increased in the first months of 2016 in more than two dozen major U.S. cities, going up in places that also saw spiking violence last year, according to statistics released Friday. The numbers were particularly grim for Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas, where the number of homicides increased in the first three months of 2016 after killings and other violent crimes also went up in 2015. FBI Director James B. Comey said, “I was very worried about it last fall, and I am in many ways more worried, because the numbers are not only going up, they’re continuing to go up in most of those cities faster than they were going up last year.” Criminologists and law enforcement officials, including Comey, say the causes of the increases are unclear, and they offer a variety of possible explanations, including gang violence and bloodshed stemming from drug addictions.

Tattoos have Gone Mainstream, but They Still Carry Risks

If getting a tattoo is still a sign of rebellion, then a lot of Americans are rebels: 29% of adults now have at least one tattoo, up from 21% in 2012 and 16% in 2003, a recent Harris Poll found. Millennials are especially tat-happy: 47% of people ages 18 to 35 are inked, according to the poll. But that increase in popularity has occurred despite what some doctors say are underappreciated and understudied risks. Among those urging caution is the Food and Drug Administration: In an update for consumers posted this month, the agency says it has received increasing reports of infections, allergic reactions and other adverse reactions linked to tattoos. The agency says it also is concerned about the unknown risks from long-term exposure to pigments and other ingredients in tattoo ink.

Economic News

Retail sales bounced back strongly in April. Overall sales jumped 1.3%, their biggest rise since March 2015, because of higher gasoline prices and a surge in auto sales, the Commerce Department said Friday. Auto sales jumped 3.2%, reversing March’s decline. And gasoline station sales rose 2.2% amid rising prices. Excluding those two volatile categories, shopper purchases still increased 0.6%. The increase was broad-based, with sales rising 0.9% at food and beverage stores; 0.7% at furniture stores; 1% at clothing stores; 0.9% at health and personal care stores; 0.3% at bars and restaurants; and 2.1% online.

The average American household is over $90,000 in debt, reports TIME. Among debtors, the average rises to a staggering $130,922—with $15,762 of that from credit cards alone—according to figures published by the consumer finance website NerdWallet. Such debt also includes student loans, auto loans and mortgages. The average U.S. household pays $6,658 each year in interest alone. The largest single contributor to debt seems to be the fact that the cost of living in the United States has exceeded income growth for the past 12 years. Since 2003, median incomes have risen by around 26%, however, medical costs grew by 51% while food costs grew by 37% during the same time frame. In addition, long-term auto loans of 5-6 years have also expanded overall debt.

Despite an 80% spike in oil prices since mid-February to around $47.50 a barrel today, oil companies continue to grapple with diminished cash flows as they’ve cut back on production and contend with low prices. Four more U.S. oil companies filed for bankruptcy over the past week. It became too difficult to pay back the debt they piled up just a few years ago when oil prices were comfortably sitting above $100 a barrel. There have already been at least 29 U.S. oil and gas bankruptcies this year alone, according to Haynes and Boone. That brings the toll since the start of last year to at least 64.

Migrant Update

Christian refugees from the Middle East who have migrated to Germany have appealed to German authorities to protect them from the persecution they are experiencing from Muslim refugees. According to ChristianToday.com, up to 40,000 of non-Muslim refugees have experienced harassment from their fellow refugees who are Muslim. Human rights organization Open Doors recently released a survey detailing the persecution faced by these non-Muslim refugees. According to the survey results, of the 231 refugees surveyed, 32 percent reported receiving death threats, 37 percent reported suffering from physical injury, and 42 percent reported receiving insults for their faith.

The number of migrants trying to reach mainland Europe by passing through the Greek islands plunged by 90% in April compared to the previous month, the European Union’s border agency said Friday. Fewer than 2,700 reached Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey over the period. It attributed the drop in arrivals to an “EU-Turkey agreement and stricter border policies applied by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at its border with Greece.” Syrians once again accounted for the largest share of people traveling to Greece from Turkey followed by nationals from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The International Organization for Migration released separate figures Friday showing that an estimated 188, 075 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea routes this year. The four countries they arrived in were Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain. At least 1,357 have died along the way. Last year, Germany registered nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers.

Israel

Monday morning saw another terrorist stabbing attack of a Jewish Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem, with the victim being rushed to a nearby hospital and the terrorist arrested. The attack came a day after French Foreign Minister Jean Marc Ayrault briefed Israeli and Palestinian officials on Paris’ new initiative to push a “peace settlement” between the two sides, which Israeli officials have expressed deep reservations about. “Any other process [like the French initiative] just pushes peace farther away and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict, which is the recognition of the state of Israel [as Jewish state],” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants are repositioning its forces Syria in response to increasing military pressure from coalition airstrikes and ground forces growing in effectiveness. A group of U.S.-backed rebel forces are making progress in seizing territory in northeastern Syria from the Islamic State, slowly isolating Raqqa, the defacto capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

Iraq

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack at a natural gas plant outside Baghdad on Sunday that left at least 14 people dead and amid explosions and fire. Three other bomb attacks in the capital city, all targeting commercial areas, left at least 8 other people dead. The assault at the gas plant began when three car bombs exploded outside the gate in Taji, less than 15 miles north of the Baghdad, the BBC reported. At least 20 people were wounded. Six men wearing suicide belts then rushed the plant, clashing with security forces and blowing up gas tanks.

Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal fighters killed 10 ISIS militants in an hours-long clash Saturday, security sources said. The attackers came from inside the town and were operating as sleeper cells. Two security officers and two tribal fighters were killed and seven others were injured during the clashes. Three militants gunned down coffee shop patrons in central Iraq on Friday morning before later blowing themselves up along with security personnel. At least 20 people were killed, officials said, in the latest deadly attacks claimed by ISIS in the country. Counting Friday’s carnage in Balad, a Shiite-majority city 50 miles north of Baghdad, attacks claimed by the Sunni terror group ISIS have left more than 110 people dead over three days.

Syria

Hezbollah says its top military commander was killed in Syria by insurgent shelling. Mustafa Badreddine died in an explosion in Damascus, Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant group said Friday. He was leading Hezbollah’s effort to help Syrian President Bashar Assad fight off militant groups trying to overthrow him. Badreddine’s death is considered to be the most serious loss to the militant group since the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, who was his cousin and predecessor. Mughniyeh was killed in a joint operation by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad spy agency, reports said. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back President Bashar Assad’s government against militants trying to remove him from power.

Yemen

A suicide bomber on Sunday detonated his explosives among policemen standing in line outside a police base in the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla, killing 25. At least 17 more people were injured in the attack. The Yemeni affiliate of the extremist Islamist State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on social media networks. Sunday’s victims were policemen returning to work for the first time since last month’s recapture of Mukalla by forces of the internationally recognized government. The port city had been held for more than a year by Yemen’s local al-Qaida affiliate.

China

Satellite photos show China has been rapidly building military outposts on disputed islands in the South China Sea, significantly boosting its presence in the already tense region, according to a Pentagon report released Friday. The report to Congress reveals that China has added over 3,200 acres to the seven sites it occupies in the South China Sea during the last two years. On these artificial island sites, China has excavated deep channels to improve access to its outposts, created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors and constructed new berthing areas to allow access for larger ships. Each of the three largest outposts will have an airfield with a runway approximately 9,800 feet long. U.S. defense officials say China is ‘weaponizing’ these man-made islands.

Environment

Almost everyone in large cities in poor and middle-income countries faces excessively high air pollution, a growing problem that is killing more than 3 million people prematurely each year and “wreaking havoc on human health,” the World Health Organization said Thursday. The U.N. health agency says more than four out of five urban dwellers worldwide live in cities that don’t meet WHO air quality guidelines – 98 percent in poorer countries and 56 percent even in high-income countries. “Ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, is the greatest environmental risk to health, causing more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide every year,” WHO said. An accompanying U.N. news release said global urban air pollution levels rose 8 percent from 2008 to 2013 “despite improvements in some regions,” and noted that people face a higher risk of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases as air quality worsens.

Five uninhabited reef islands in the Solomon Islands chain in the Pacific have vanished completely thanks to rising sea levels, say Australian researchers. The news for inhabited islands in the chain isn’t so great, either. Nararo is one of six inhabited islands in the Solomon Islands to be severely eroded by rising sea levels, which are climbing seven to 10 millimeters per year in the area. “The sea has started to come inland, it forced us to move up to the hilltop and rebuild our village there away from the sea,” says the leader of the Paurata tribe on Nararo Island. Nuatambu Island has lost half of its habitable land since 2011, and Taro in Choiseul province may soon become the world’s first provincial capital to be abandoned due to climate change, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake shook Tokyo and other cities in eastern Japan on Monday, but officials said there is no danger of a tsunami. The Meteorological Agency said the earthquake had an initial magnitude of 5.6 and was centered in southern Ibaraki prefecture, about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo. The earthquake also shook Tsukuba, where science and technology ministers from the Group of Seven nations are meeting. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Weather

Even though Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start to summer, is only two weeks away, it felt more like St. Patrick’s Day Weekend across the Midwest and Northeast. Parts of several states from the Upper Midwest into the Great Lakes have seen record low temperatures and even some snow. Among the daily record lows set over the weekend were Grand Forks, North Dakota (23 degrees), Wisconsin (30 degrees), and South Bend, Indiana (31 degrees). Snow was also reported this past weekend in parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, northeast Ohio, northwest Pennsylvania and northern New York.

More than 60 people have reportedly been killed from lightning over the past two days during tropical storms across Bangladesh. Bengali-language newspapers Prothom Alo and Samakal reported Saturday that most of the deaths have occurred in rural Bangladesh, where farmers are busy with the current harvesting season. Experts say increased deforestation and people’s exposure to metal equipment like cellphones are the reasons behind lightning deaths.

Earth experienced the warmest April on record, keeping 2016 on track to be the hottest year yet and by the biggest margin ever. New data released by NASA put this April’s land and sea temperatures at 1.11 degrees Celsius warmer than average April temperatures between 1951 to 1980, which NASA uses as a reference point to study recent climate change. It was the seventh month in a row to rise by at least 1 degree Celsius above the 1951-80 reference averages.

  • End-time weather will continue to become more extreme (Daniel 9:26b, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

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