Abortion Rights Attacks Intensify for Election Season

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas (left), is one of the strong women's rights advocates in Congress.  California State Senate member Hilda Solis (right) is on the California ballot to join Jackson Lee and the feminist ranks in the U.S. Congress.

In an effort to turn out anti-abortion rights voters during the presidential primaries and for the general elections, Republican leaders in Congress have scheduled a slew of votes designed to continue the erosion of women's reproductive rights.

Reproductive Rights Under Fire

Teen Endangerment Act

The Senate will vote on the Child Custody Protection Act (S. 661/H.R.1218) which has already passed the House twice, once in the 105th Congress and again last year. The measure would criminalize the act of transporting a teenager (by any adult other than a parent) across state lines in violation of the home state's parental involvement laws. Virtually all states would be affected if this bill passes; there will likely be a constitutional challenge.

Legal Rights for Fetuses

The House passed last year and, as the NOW Times goes to press, the Senate will soon vote on perhaps the most dangerous anti-abortion rights bill to be advanced thus far. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 2436/S. 1673) would make it a felony to injure or kill a fetus by harming a pregnant woman. The intent of the bill is to establish in federal law legal personhood for a fetus and, although women are exempted in the current bill from prosecution for actions that may harm the fetus, the next steps would likely be to pass laws which would punish pregnant women for causing risks to their fetus, such as substance use or failing to obtain pre-natal health care, as has already been done in several states. In September, the House rejected an amendment offered by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and John Conyers, D-Mich., that would have removed the new legal definition for fetuses and strengthened protections for pregnant women.

Abortion Procedures Ban

It's deja vu all over again, with the repeat vote on the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban (H.R. 3660), back on the House side as the paper goes to press. The Senate has voted on the ban (S. 1692) already, failing to achieve a super-majority sufficient to override a presidential veto. Quick passage is expected while the Supreme Court prepares to review a decision of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals which struck down abortion procedure bans in Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found in October that similar bans in Wisconsin and Illinois are constitutional. (See related article.)

Fetal Tissue Research

This is another potentially inflammatory issue that abortion rights opponents are exploiting, packaging it as a sound bite: "selling baby parts." A segment on the ABC television news magazine "20/20" aired in early March charging that companies are selling fetal tissue illegally and making sizable profits. Opponents of the research allege that women who have decided to have abortions are being pressured to continue pregnancies to produce more developed specimens and that doctors are changing abortion procedures in order to obtain intact fetuses. Federal law strictly regulates the sale of fetal tissue, limits prices to cost reimbursement and de-links a woman's consent to abortion from any consent to donate fetal tissue.

At a standing-room-only hearing in a House Commerce subcommittee, credibility of the star witness for the Republicans collapsed as he admitted to fabricating information in a video provided for Life Dynamics, an anti-abortion group. The witness is also reportedly connected to violent anti-abortion activists. Abortion rights supporters are concerned that this will become yet another avenue for opponents to promote intrusive laws and to endanger personnel involved in fetal tissue research. Research in the area has shown promise of effective treatments for AIDS, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, spinal cord injury and certain rare ailments.

Clinic Violence Amendment in Bankruptcy Reform Act

One small victory in an otherwise dreary scene is the adoption by the Senate (80-17) of Sen. Chuck Schumer's, D-N.Y., amendment to the Bankruptcy Reform Act (H.R. 833). The measure would prevent clinic violence defendants like Randall Terry from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying fines, damages and other fees in court settlements. But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is threatening to remove the amendment from the final conference bill.

Also Coming Up in Congress

Minimum Wage Nudge

Republican leaders finally relented after much opposition to increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour, although they passed a bill which draws the increase out over three years instead of the two that Democrats wanted. The President promised a veto because the increase was coupled with a $122 billion tax cut favoring those who really do not need tax cuts. The minimum wage, even with increases, does not move a family of three above the poverty level; the vast majority of minimum wage workers are women.

A Future for VAWA?

On March 8, International Women's Day, lobby day visits to the Hill with scores of advocates brought the VAWA message to members of Congress. Time is running out on re-authorization (H.R. 1248) for the Violence Against Women Act (which expires on Oct.1) and the congressional session has less than three months to go. What will happen with a half-dozen other important anti-violence bills is unclear as well. NOW and other VAWA supporters delivered 45,000 signatures from a petition drive, "It's My Right to Live Free from Domestic & Sexual Violence."

Re-tooling HCPA

Supporters of The Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 622/H.R.1082) are fashioning a new strategy to get the bill passed (again) this Congress; it will undoubtedly be attached as an amendment to legislation that the Republican leadership dearly wants. HCPA was passed as part of the Commerce/State/Justice Appropriations bill last fall, but was deleted in the final version. HCPA would add new categories of sex-based, sexual orientation-based and disability-based hate crimes to the federal criminal statutes.

Men's Custody Money

The House passed (328-93) the so-called Fathers Count Act (H.R. 3073) in November to establish more than $150 million in grants for counseling non-custodial fathers in parenting, anger management, marital relationships and obtaining employment so that they can meet child support obligations. NOW and other organizations objected to gender bias in the legislation as well as to the very real possibility that funds would go to so-called men's rights groups who have assisted alleged batterers in gaining custody. An additional problem: the legislation requires that grantees promote marriage as a goal for men in these programs, ignores the pervasive problem of domestic violence and would allow funds to go to religious organizations. It is not certain at the moment whether or when the Senate will take up the House measure or S. 1364, the misleadingly named Responsible Fatherhood Act, sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M. NOW, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations have formed a Parents and Families Coalition to develop sounder legislation aimed at assisting low-income parents.

ESEA Targeted

One of the most important education laws, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now up for re-authorization in the Senate, is the target for countless right wing attacks. A victory was sustained in early March when the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would have eliminated Department of Education programs that combat bigotry, violence and hate crimes in schools. But right-wingers are intent on passing an array of voucher proposals and tax credit proposals that favor the well-to-do. Further efforts to limit gender equity requirements in educational programs are also a danger. On a related note, the Department of Education has delayed for many months the completion and release of a congressionally-mandated report on the status of gender equity programs.

Being Patient

Conferees began in March what will be difficult negotiations over two radically divergent managed care reform bills. The Senate's S. 1344 is a limited and ineffectual bill that would cover only employees in private employment-based health plans, while the House's Bipartisan Managed Care Reform (H.R. 2990) gives nearly all insured health consumers important protections, including direct access to ob-gyns for women, better access to specialists outside the HMO at no extra cost, and protection from retaliation for doctors and nurses who report quality problems with HMOs, hospitals and insurance companies.

Conferees will debate expanding Medical Savings Accounts (which benefit the wealthy), establishing HealthMarts (plans that would be exempt from state benefit mandates), allowing individual-paid health insurance premiums to be tax deductible and the right to sue an HMO.

Rewarding the Christian Right

The Senate will soon vote on the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA, H.R. 1691) despite having held no hearings on the controversial bill. RLPA, which the House already passed, is supposed to assure that governments do not place undue burdens on the free exercise of religious beliefs. However, the bill would undermine civil rights protections at state and local levels, hamper the enforcement of child safety laws and may constrain minors' access to reproductive health services.

Bad Bankruptcy Bill

An even more regressive Bankruptcy Reform Bill (H.R. 833) than the one passed in the 105th Congress was adopted by the Senate; it would severely restrict the ability of persons in debt to reorganize their finances. Women form the fastest-growing group of persons declaring bankruptcy, although the number of bankruptcies which exploded in recent years has leveled off. An amendment which clarifies payment priority for past-due child support obligations was adopted, but the bill would decrease resources for priority payments by its other requirements.

Among its many punishing provisions, H.R. 833 makes bankruptcy court a minefield of potential traps for debtors who cannot afford attorneys, prevents many debtors from seeking Chapter 13 restructuring plans to save their homes and applies a rigid means test to prevent many financially strapped families from seeking relief under Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Meanwhile, banks and credit card companies are not held accountable in their aggressive credit card marketing practices.

"Charitable Choice" is Dangerous

The Literacy Involved Families Together Act (H.R. 3222 - LIFT) is one of many bills which have been pushed by the right-wing leadership in Congress with so-called charitable choice provisions. Such efforts are undesirable and even dangerous in that they blur the dividing line between church and state, allow religious organizations to receive government funds to provide social services and exempt such organizations from complying with federal anti-discrimination laws. An amendment offered by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., in the House Education and Workforce Committee attempted to remove the charitable choice provision, but it failed. Other bills containing Charitable Choice provisions include the so-called Fathers Count Act (H.R. 3073), Juvenile Justice (S. 254), Religious Liberty Protection Act (H.R. 1691), Financial Freedom Act (Education Savings Account - H.R. 2488), Adoption Awareness Act (S. 1382/H.R. 2511) and a dozen other right-wing initiatives on school prayer, flag burning, tax cuts, substance abuse, education vouchers and low- income assistance.

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