Reproductive Rights Battle Continues Unabated



by Sarah Martin, PAC Assistant, and Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director
  As usual, politicians have been playing a tug of war with women's reproductive freedom over the past few months. Here is a round up of recent developments.

N.J. Teen Endangerment Bill

With a teen endangerment or parental notification bill racing through New Jersey’s assembly, a van loaded with NOW interns, staff organizers and Action Vice President Elizabeth Toledo headed to New Jersey to protest the legislation. They joined other activists at the NOW- NJ rally on the steps of the Capitol an hour before the Senate Judiciary Committee met to vote on the measure.

Nevertheless, the committee voted to send the bill to the Senate floor where it easily passed.  Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed the bill, making New Jersey the 42nd state to put young women at risk by mandating parental involvement in their decision on abortion.

Gov. Whitman's support of the bill was a shock, as she had previously opposed such legislation. Whitman had claimed she would do nothing to interfere with "a woman's ability to have an abortion." (5/99, The Record, Bergen County, NJ).

This fall, the New Jersey Assembly will take up an abortion procedures ban, and Whitman has announced she will sign it if it gets to her desk. Whitman's recent support for abortion restrictions may be an attempt to further align herself with right-wing Republicans as she eyes a possible vice-presidential nomination by her party.

Contact NOW NJ President Elizabeth Volz at 609-939-0156 or by e-mail at NOWNJ@aol.com to get involved.


Maine Abortion Procedures Ban

Anti-abortion rights forces in Maine have placed an abortion procedures ban (the so-called partial birth abortion ban) on the November ballot.  Proponents tried to move it through the Assembly, but Independent Governor Angus King promised a veto.  Maine already has a law against post-viability abortions, except to preserve a woman's life or health.

Contact Maine Coordinator, Renee Berry-Huffman at RBHJustice@aol.com for information on how you can support Maine NOW's efforts.

NOW and other reproductive rights supporters defeated abortion procedures ban referenda in Colorado and Washington last fall. The measures failed in large part because voters felt the language was vague and had concerns about criminalizing medical procedures.


Approval of RU-486 in Danger

The House amended the Agriculture Appropriations bill to prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from developing, testing or approving any drug that could induce abortion.  Anti-abortion forces were targeting Mifepristone, or RU-486, but the prohibition could also prevent development of drug therapies for certain types of cancer and other diseases. The Agriculture Appropriations bill passed in the Senate without the restriction. A conference committee will determine whether the House-passed restriction stays in the bill; last year a conference committee dropped a similar provision.

Barring other unforeseen difficulty, Mifepristone is expected to be available for general use soon; it is currently available in clinical trials in cases with critical health needs. Contact Jennifer Jackman at the Feminist Majority's Compassionate Use Program, 703-522-2214 for more info.


Backdoor Anti-Abortion Tactics

A particularly devious anti-reproductive rights bill was introduced in the House recently, entitled the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 1999 (H.R. 2436), which would punish anyone who caused the death of a fetus through injury to the pregnant woman.  Intentional violence that causes a woman to miscarry or brings about harm to normal fetal development is a tragedy, but  the approach taken in this bill  threatens women's reproductive rights.

Injury to a fetus is also injury to a woman.  Such crimes should be prosecuted as crimes against women.  This bill is a backdoor attempt to obtain separate rights for the fetus. Independent prosecution for harming fetuses is a dangerous legal precedent with broad implications in limiting women's reproductive freedom.

Sponsors of the act, Reps. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Charles Canady, R-Fla., are reproductive rights opponents.  They claim the legislation would protect women and fetuses against violence, yet none of the sponsors support the Violence Against Women Act.  The Unborn Victims bill is expected to have a full committee hearing in September.


Military Women's Health at Risk

Military women overseas do not have access to abortion at a military hospital unless their life is at risk, even if they agree to pay for it with personal funds. Without military health care, the women may have to utilize frequently substandard local health facilities. NOW's Membership Vice President Karen Johnson advises women considering military service to evaluate this before joining.

When women's rights advocates in Congress attempted to include money for federally- funded abortions in cases of rape or incest in the Defense Appropriations bill,  Republican members proposed adding  "forcible" to rape and reporting requirements for rape and incest.

"Some members of Congress are again showing how poorly informed they are and how little they care about women," says Johnson. "I suppose they're trying to distinguish from consensual rape.  What are they thinking?"  In the end, the ban on abortion at a military facility was retained.


Teen Endangerment Act Passed

In June, the House approved another bill to criminalize assisting a teenager across state lines for an abortion in order to avoid the home state's parental involvement law.  Adult friends, counselors, ministers and even grandmothers who help a teen in this way may end up in  federal prison.

The so-called Child Custody Protection Act (H.R. 1218) attempts to legislate family communication, but would, in fact, have the opposite effect.  Approximately 75 percent of young women already involve a parent when faced with an unintended pregnancy.  Minors who cannot confide in their parents usually turn to a trusted adult.  However, many would not  do so knowing that the adult would face  prison for providing assistance.  Ninety-three percent of minors are accompanied by an adult to an abortion clinic.


Contraceptive Coverage

Re-introduced in June, the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act would require insurance plans that offer prescription drug coverage to cover contraceptive drugs and devices.  Some insurance companies are now offering men coverage for Viagra, the highly-touted drug for erectile dysfunction.  The exclusion of contraception from many private health care plans exposes a flagrant gender bias in health care.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports women pay 68 percent more than men in out-of- pocket medical care. Studies show that the cost of this benefit to employees and employers would be minimal.

Coverage for contraception is popular, and if the measure fails to move forward—as in the previous Congress—NOW could help make it an important election year issue. Seven states (Conn., Ga., Hawaii, Maine, Neb., Vt. and Md.) have passed contraceptive equity bills.


Federal Employees Health Plans Restrict Contraception

The last Congress approved a requirement that insurance companies participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plans (FEHBP) cover birth control.  Since the requirement was in an annual appropriations bill, a battle may have to be fought to retain the requirement yearly.

The requirement also included a controversial exemption for plans with religious objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage. This year, the fight was over an amendment offered by arch-abortion-rights opponent Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., to allow health plans under FEHBP to decline coverage if the plans held a "moral conviction" against birth control.

Smith argued that most contraceptives, including the emergency contraceptive Preven, are actually abortifacients.  Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., valiantly fought these amendments, but was unsuccessful.

Global Gag Rule Retained

 The House passed the State Department authorization bill, appropriating $25 million for family planning in poor regions around the world.  Due to concerns over China's coercive family planning practices, funding from the U.S. may not be used for the U.N. Population Fund's China program.  Also, the House approved $385 million for international family planning assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

 However, the House again approved an amendment by Rep. Smith to ban U.S. international family planning funds to organizations  that perform abortions or engage in discussions about abortion laws — even when they use non-U.S. funds to provide those services. With this restriction, the U.S. is contributing to the deaths of 600,000 women from pregnancy and childbirth each year, with 75,000 of those dying from unsafe abortions.



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