New Congress Poses Threat to Reproductive Rights

Photo: At a protest calling for a presidential veto of a bill that would have banned a seldom-used, late-term abortion procedure, NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey, left, joined Vikki Stella, center, who testified before Congress about her medical experiences, and then-Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.

by Jan Erickson
Government Relations Director

Last fall's elections produced a Congress that is solidly anti-abortion. The Senate could have up to 51 votes against abortion and family planning, with only 34 supporters and the others with mixed records. The House has a clear majority of 221 of 435 members who oppose abortion rights.

Although abortion rights supporters averted a veto override of the late-term abortion ban in the closing days of the 104th Congress, nearly all other attacks on reproductive rights were successful. More than 50 measures limiting access and funding to abortion and family planning were passed, including deep cuts and crippling restrictions on international family planning assistance. Among the more punishing changes was a Republican-led reversal of a requirement that states must provide Medicaid funds for abortions for victims of rape and incest.

In other regressive and harmful actions, Congress also:
The new welfare law also has a number of provisions affecting reproductive health, such as mandating abstinence education, requiring that states reduce the number of children born out of wedlock, letting states prohibit assistance to additional children born to welfare recipients, and denying public health benefits for legal immigrants.

Many of the new policies are intrusive and paternalistic, especially the requirement that women divulge the identity of the father of their child or face penalties. NOW and other domestic violence program advocates pointed out that this often invites an abuser back into a woman's life, and with up to 92 percent of poor women experiencing severe physical or sexual abuse at some point in their lives, this is not a small issue.

The failed attempt to override Clinton's veto of the D & X bill was no doubt only a temporary victory. The Senate defeated the veto override attempt 57-41, with two-thirds or 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto.

This action occurred after some of the most intensive lobbying seen in recent years. A steady stream of Catholic priests and fundamentalist ministers clogged the halls of Congress, and thousands of abortion rights opponents were bused to Capitol Hill by the Christian Coalition and other anti-abortion groups. Church parishioners mailed 27 million postcards to members of Congress.

A renewed effort to impose the ban is expected, and Congress is now poised for a frontal attack on reproductive rights. Even though the vast majority of the public favors access to abortion services under most circumstances, the 105th Congress could very well make a serious attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade. Five separate repeal bills were introduced into the last Congress. 

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