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National NOW Times >> Summer, 2001 >> Article

Reproductive Rights Status Report: Outlook Negative

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

The assault on women’s reproductive rights is escalating even more rapidly with an anti-abortion rights president in the White House and a majority party in Congress that opposes reproductive rights and has no fear of a presidential veto. A substantial number of bills and regulatory changes have been initiated that undermine women’s access to reproductive health services--many of which cleverly camouflage their actual intent.

Clinic Access - One positive note was struck when the Supreme Court, on April 16, let stand a U.S. appeals court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). The challenge to FACE was brought by 25 anti-abortion rights activists who participated in blockades of an Englewood, NJ clinic in the mid-90s.

Embryo Personhood - On April 26, the House passed (252-172) the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 503), sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), that attempts to establish for the first time in federal law a fetus, or even a fertilized egg, as a legal person with rights separate from those of the pregnant woman. If H.R. 503 becomes law, the rights and health of women would be infringed upon as they have been in states where fetal personhood laws have been adopted. A very close vote is expected in the Senate, and George W. Bush has promised to sign the bill.

Global Gag Rule - Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) and 72 co-sponsors in the House, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and 18 co-sponsors in the Senate, have introduced the Global Democracy Promotion Act (H.R. 755/S. 367) to overturn Bush’s reimposition of the global gag rule on international family planning programs. It would prohibit restrictions on foreign non-governmental organizations that limit freedom of speech and democratic decision-making. In an encouraging win, the House International Relations Committee added the language of the act to the State Department authorization bill, expected to come to a vote on the House floor shortly.

Terrorist Web Site Decision - NOW Foundation is participating as an amicus requesting the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to re-visit the March 28 ruling of its three-judge panel that the dangerous Nuremberg Files Web site is protected under First Amendment free speech guarantees. The court also received a brief from 59 members of Congress asking for a review in light of congressional intent to protect reproductive health care providers under FACE. The site contains detailed information about women’s health clinic personnel presented as a wanted poster, with lines crossing out doctors and clinic staff who have been murdered.

Contraceptive Coverage - Bush’s budget proposes dropping a requirement that 250 insurance companies provide prescription contraception coverage for 8.7 million federal employees. The announcement was a great disappointment to reproductive rights advocates and bill sponsor Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) who fought hard over several years to get the requirement adopted.

Anti-Mifepristone Bill - The RU-486 Patient Health Safety Protection Act (S. 251/H.R. 482) was introduced by Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR) and Rep. David Vitter (R-LA) in early February. It would stipulate a series of restrictions on the use of mifepristone by reproductive health care providers that would severely limit availability. The bill’s sponsors and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that they have "safety concerns" about mifepristone, despite the fact that extensive clinical trials in the U.S. showed the drug to be extremely safe and effective.

Emergency Contraception - Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) is sponsoring new legislation to restrict minors’ access to contraception even though teen pregnancy rates are at a record low--due, in large part, to improved access to family planning services. The deceptively-titled Schoolchildren’s Health Protection Act (S. 74) would deny funding from the U.S. Department of Education to any state or local educational agency that provides emergency contraception or a prescription for emergency contraception to a minor on the premises of an elementary or secondary school. The bill is on the Senate calendar and could come up at any time.

On Feb. 14 the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project submitted a formal petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the status of emergency contraception from prescription-only to over-the-counter availability. The FDA is expected to take at least several months before making a decision.

Teen Endangerment Act - The so-called Child Custody Protection Act was re-introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) as H.R. 476 and could come up at any time. It would prohibit anyone from transporting or assisting in transporting a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion in violation of the home state’s parental involvement laws. A similar bill (H.R. 1218) passed the House in the 106th Congress by 270-159, but was not taken up by the Senate.

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