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U.S. News Archive
January 14 - January 20, 2001



This page contains news for the period January 14, 2001 through January 20, 2001.  

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Saturday, January 20, 2001

Washington state Legislature reviewing grandparent visitation law

A story published today in the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports that state lawmakers in Washington are considering ways to help grandparents who want court permission to visit their grandchildren.

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday took conflicting, and sometimes emotional, testimony on a proposal that responds to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated Washington's grandparents' rights law on the grounds that it was overly broad and sometimes conflicted with parental rights.

Rep. Carolyn Edmonds, D-Shoreline, introduced House Bill 1054 because Washington courts are uncertain whether third-party visitation rights still exist after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June.

Her proposal would allow non-parents to petition the court for visitation rights if they can demonstrate a substantial relationship between the petitioner and the child.

Petitions could be filed by people who believe they have been unreasonably denied visitation or in cases where significant change in circumstances, such as a divorce, threatens the visitations. The court may order visitation if it can be shown that lack of contact would be of harm to the child's physical, psychological or emotional well-being.

If passed, the bill could affect the rights of unmarried partners, including same-sex partners, who are cut off from visitation with a child they have been jointly raising with the biological parent when the couple separates.


Thursday, January 18, 2001

Rev. Jesse Jackson acknowledges having a child out of wedlock

A story published today by Reuters reports that civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson today acknowledged that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock.

Jackson, a two-time former presidential candidate who hosts a talk show on CNN, said in a statement released early this morning that he took full responsibility for the child and had been supporting her emotionally and financially since she was born.

``I am father to a daughter who was born outside of my marriage,'' the Baptist preacher said in a brief statement. ``This is no time for evasions, denials or alibis. I fully accept responsibility and I am truly sorry for my actions.''

Jackson said he was determined to give the child and her mother their privacy.

``As her mother does, I love this child very much and have assumed responsibility for her emotional and financial support since she was born,'' he said.

Jackson, himself born to unmarried parents, said his wife, Jackie, and their children were aware of the child, and it had been ''an extremely painful, trying and difficult time for them.''

``I have asked God and each one of them to forgive me and I thank each of them for their grace and understanding throughout this period of tribulation,'' he said.


Wednesday, January 17, 2001

IRS may relax rules to allow retirees to withdraw fewer funds from IRAs, 401(k) Plans

A story published today in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Treasury Department may simplify the rules regarding mandatory distributions from individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans, and the changes will benefit both married and unmarried taxpayers.

The story advises that if you'll be 70 1/2 or older this year, or if you're taking mandatory withdrawals from a retirement plan you inherited, you should talk to your accountant or financial adviser about the new regulations soon.

The IRS, which takes its marching orders from the Treasury, generally requires people to begin taking withdrawals from IRAs, 401(k) plans and other tax-sheltered retirement plans at age 70 1/2.

Most people start tapping their retirement plans before that, but some want to take out as little as possible because withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income.

The new rules extend the life-expectancy period for most people, which means they'll have to take out less money, and their retirement funds will continue to grow tax-deferred for a longer period.

The new rules are still in the proposal stage, but the IRS says people can begin using them this year. In fact, people who were taking distributions under the old rules can switch to the new ones this year.

In the past, people had to choose one of three complex formulas for determining their distributions.

Now, most people will use one simple table.  This table will be used by most single people and married people whose spouse is older or less than 10 years younger, regardless of who their beneficiaries are.

To use the table, a retiree must divide the value of the retirement plan or plans on the last day of the previous year by the distribution period (which is based loosely on your remaining life expectancy) for the age he or she will turn this year.   The quotient is your minimum distribution for this year.

For example, a single person who will turn 70 this year and has $100,000 in IRAs would have to withdraw $3,816.80 this year ($100,000 divided by 26.2 years).

Under the old rules, this person, assuming he had no beneficiaries, would have had to take out $6,250 ($100,000 divided by 16), according to Dan Sweeney, a financial adviser with LPL Financial in San Jose.

The new rules require retirement plan custodians -- such as banks, brokerage firms and mutual funds -- to tell customers each year what their minimum required distribution is. The custodians must forward the same information to the IRS.

That will make life easier for the mathematically challenged, but it will also make it easier for the IRS to crack down on cheaters.

The tax penalty for not withdrawing enough from your retirement plan is half of the amount you should have taken out but didn't.

Other changes afoot:

-- Previously, "If you changed beneficiaries while the employee was alive -- say your oldest child was 40, but that child died and you switched to one who was 50 -- you'd have to recalculate and use a distribution period based on that older age. The change was not always in your favor," says Dick Wickersham, an IRS manager in Washington, D.C.

"Now, it doesn't matter who your beneficiaries are. Once you pick (a distribution schedule) you have it for life."

-- Under old laws, if someone died before age 70 1/2 and the beneficiary was not a spouse, the beneficiary had to withdraw the entire account within five years. Now, it can be distributed over the life expectancy of the beneficiary, Sweeney says.


Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Effectiveness of teen 'virginity pledges' said to be a hoax

A story published today in Salon online says that a recent report claiming that 'virginity pledges' by teenagers is, in reality, a gross exaggeration.  The writer says that the report put the best possible political spin on the data, which, when reviewed more closely, shows that programs promoting teen pledges to remain virgin until marriage are actually failing quite badly.

The 63-page report on teen sex and virginity was derived from the survey of nearly 100,000 adolescents at 145 schools by a handful of researchers funded with money from 19 federal agencies.

The writer, Jennifer Foote Sweeney, asks: "So what did they -- we -- learn from the study of 'virginity pledges' by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development?"

She replies:  "Nothing new -- all of it depressing. And the stuff that wasn't there, the data between the lines? So infuriating, so heartbreaking, that it makes me want to cry."

According to Sweeney, the bottom line of the study is alarming:

"The results so far: A very young kid who wants very much to be cool will promise to stay a virgin until marriage as long as it is cool and may postpone sexual intercourse for about 18 months; but when she decides it isn't cool to keep the pledge she is more likely than the uncool non-pledgers to get pregnant and/or a sexually-transmitted disease. "

Sweeney says that the virginity pledge movement, brainchild of the Southern Baptist Church and favorite fad of teen mags ("Virginity is hot," said Young and Modern magazine in an issue featuring the 100 secrets of Leonardo DiCaprio), has been a resounding success, according to the study's chief researchers. This in an introduction that opens with a line from the Madonna song "Like a Virgin." Pledgers, announces the study, postpone first-time sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers.

But Sweeney points out that once the report is reviewed more carefully, the news is not so rosy for those who want teens to abstain from sex until marriage.

She writes:

"The first, elephant-in-the-corner type caveat concerns why teenagers take, or don't take, the virginity pledge. According to the report, kids will only pledge to stay virgins until marriage if it is 'cool,' which usually means that other kids are taking the pledge. But kids won't take the pledge if so many other kids are pledging virginity that it is 'uncool.' Say the researchers: 'The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, like other identity movements, the pledge identity is relatively fragile and meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially non-normative.' My favorite description of this conundrum? 'The pledge effect is largely contextual.'

"In other words, a virginity pledge, like glitter powder and Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts, is based on the painfully self-conscious surrender of self and not, as Hester wants to believe, on the early adoption of family values. It ceases to be attractive when Leo expresses a preference for sex or when virginity is no longer 'hot' or so 'hot' that it becomes 'uncool.'

The average delay incurred by the virginity pledge, reports the study, tends to be about 18 months -- marriage appears not to be a factor. And then there's the part about how the pledge works best among 15- to 17-year-olds (not so well among 18-year-olds) and that it helps if the pledger is religious, of Asian ancestry, in a romantic relationship or less advanced in pubertal development.

Sweeney adds:

"And finally -- whoops! -- when pledgers break their pledges they have a tendency to have unsafe sex. Researchers suggest that since the pledgers promised not to have sex, when they finally do, they haven't done much planning and are unlikely to use contraception. (Another favorite footnote here: "That pledgers who have sex are likely to be contraceptively unprepared is to be expected, for it is hard to imagine how one could both pledge to be a virgin until marriage and carry a condom while unmarried.")

But, Sweeney says, there's even more deception to the report:

"Researchers only asked their subjects about vaginal intercourse. They did not ask about oral or anal sex, which recent studies indicate are reported at high rates among teenagers, more and more of whom believe that oral and anal sex can be indulged in without relinquishing one's virginity. In fact, a recent study by the Urban Institute, also funded by the federal government, focused on the sexual practices of 15- to 19-year-old boys and found that two-thirds of the more than 3,000 boys interviewed had experience with oral sex, anal intercourse or masturbation by a female. The first two behaviors put the participants at risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases, though few of the respondents were aware of that. Most of those interviewed said they did not consider their activities to constitute "sex," -- in fact, many felt oral sex qualified as abstinent behavior."

So, the pledgers who, according to the study, jealously guarded their "virginity" for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers could well have been having sex of another kind -- every other kind -- for years before "breaking" their pledge.

But that, alas, is not the worst of it, Sweeney says, adding:

"The part that I hate most in this study is the unwritten part, the part that pompously assumes that teenagers are not entitled to intimacy, to pleasure, to education or to a sense of self. The part that is dangerous and sad implies that a "virginity pledge" is "effective" in dealing with teen pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and participation in other "risk" activities like smoking, drinking and substance abuse but fails to acknowledge the role of the pledge movement in promoting oral and anal sex among teenagers while denying them any education about either. The part that is sneaky and amazing perpetuates the concept of "technical virginity," a state that is likely to be just as confusing and burdensome for a 16-year-old as sexual intercourse, if not more so given its uncomfortable and much-talked-about proximity to untruth."

Sweeney agrees with the authors of this report when they suggest that teenagers should not engage in unwanted sexual activity. Nobody should engage in unwanted sexual activity.

Sweeney concludes her articles by saying:

"What a shame, though, given the funding and access that these academics enjoy, that they don't expose the "virginity pledge" for what it is: a sexist, guilt-driven campaign of terror that fosters frightened conformity in adolescents, as well as high-risk sexual behavior and dishonesty."

Iowa Legislature to consider 'covenant marriage' bill

A story published today by the Daily Iowan, a college campus newspaper, reports that Iowa couples would have the option of making their marriage a "covenant marriage" if the state Legislature passes a bill introduced last week. Choosing a covenant marriage would give couples the option of making a stronger commitment to their marriage and make it harder to get a divorce than is allowed by the current law.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Phil Tyrrell, R-North English, states that those choosing a covenant marriage should undergo premarital counseling and sign a declaration avowing that their marriage is a lifetime commitment. No-fault divorce laws would not apply to the two people, who would be allowed to divorce only in extreme circumstances, such as abuse, adultery, abandonment or separation without reconciliation for two years.

Iowa's covenant-marriage bill is part of a nationwide movement aimed at reducing the high U.S. divorce rate and its negative effect on families. Louisiana passed a similar bill in 1997, Arizona followed suit in 1998, and such bills were narrowly defeated in several other states.

Louisiana and Arizona's covenant-marriage laws have failed to achieve their desired effect, however. Only about one percent of couples in Louisiana took advantage of their covenant-marriage option in the year after the bill went into effect, and only 2-3 percent of couples do so now. Such low participation has no substantial effect on the divorce rate.

Ellen Schwarzkopf, the author of the story in the Daily Iowan, says that such bills aren't only ineffective, they're unnecessary, adding:

"Couples are free to make any level of commitment to their marriage and one another that they choose. They can choose to dissolve their marriage for whatever reason, or they can do the opposite and choose to stick it out, not taking advantage of a no-fault divorce. The state government's option of covenant marriage is superfluous.

"It's also inappropriate for the state to categorize a married couple's level of commitment, which is by nature a highly personal topic. The government has no business judging that a divorce is right for one couple but wrong for another. Such matters as reasons for divorce should be left to couples; the government should grant marriages and divorces with no questions asked."

Shye concludes:

"Increasing couples' level of marital commitment and reducing the divorce rate may be a noble cause, but it's one best left to individuals and groups other than the government. A covenant-marriage bill for these purposes would be an inappropriate and unnecessary government intrusion into couples' private lives."


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