Year Ends With More Setbacks for Women

by Jan Erikson, Government Relations Director

NW Suburban NOW (Ill.) participates in a Take Back the Night candlelight vigil. Local actions must go hand-in-hand with legislative efforts at the national level to pass the new Violence Against Women Act.  Photo courtesy of NW Suburban Illinois NOW.

The end of the first session of the 106th Congress brought a number of losses for women's issues, a few gains and many questions. At the top of the list is the uncertainty surrounding reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which was a casualty of the intensive battle over the budget. Continued funding for VAWA programs under the Departments of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department were included in appropriations measures, but only for the year 2000.  The new and expanded 1999 Violence Against Women Act, H.R. 357, did not even get a hearing.

Hate Crimes Act Pulled

Feminists thought we would have a wonderful victory to report when the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 (HCPA, S. 622) was attached to the Commerce/State/Justice appropriations bill earlier this year. But the HCPA was dropped in Conference Committee at the request of Republican leaders, including Sen.Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose competing, but meaningless, hate crimes study bill was retained. A last minute proposal by Sen. Hatch to restore the HCPA excluding sex-based hate crimes (leaving in sexual orientation and disability-based bias crimes) was unacceptable to the bill's sponsors.

International Family Planning Used As Bargaining Chip

During the final weeks of negotiations with Congress, President Clinton acceded to years of pressure by Republican abortion rights opponents and agreed to re-impose a global gag rule on family planning programs abroad. The move did not come as a surprise to NOW's leadership. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly recommended to the President that the deal be made and she take responsibility for it.

In essence, the Republican leadership agreed to pay long-overdue U.N. dues of nearly a billion dollars and to expand the International Monetary Fund's debt relief program in exchange for silencing non-governmental organizations in other countries on the subject of abortion.  A compromise allows the President to waive the gag rule and a ban on provision of abortion services (using non-U.S. funds), but if he does, U.S. international family planning funds of $385 million will be cut by 3 percent and the money shifted to children's health. The Republican leadership has already slashed international family planning in 1997 from $547 million and capped it at $385 million.

Seventeen women members of Congress sent a letter to the President asking for a renewed commitment to reproductive rights, for an increased budget request next year to make up for the 3 percent loss ($12.5 million) and a meeting to review implementation of the Cairo agreements on promoting welfare of women.

Of the 210 million estimated pregnancies worldwide, more than a quarter result in abortions or unwanted births.  An estimated 600,000 women die each year due to pregnancy-related complications, with about 78,000 dying from botched abortions.

Win for Patients' Rights

An unexpected victory—and important gain for women's access to health care—came with passage of the Bipartisan Managed Care Improvement Act of 1999 (H.R. 2723, the Norwood-Dingell bill), a strong patients' bill of rights for Health Maintenance Organizations.

Observers expected that the right-wing House would pass a phony patients' bill of rights when the Senate approved S. 1344, a weak gesture to protect patient care.  But a collection of  physicians, dentists and other health care professionals serving in the House—many of them Republicans—broke with the leadership to promote their own strong bill.

Heavy lobbying with the help of the American Medical Association and near unanimous support from Democrats passed the bill 275-151.  A tough battle with conferees over the final version is expected.  Under the bill, women would have better access to ob-gyns, outside specialty care and clinical trials that may save lives.

Additional substantial protections were passed, including a strengthening of decision-making by doctors, rather than insurance company bureaucrats, in determining how care will be provided to patients.

Reproductive Rights Give and Take

We won a victory when the Senate failed to secure a veto-proof majority (63-34) in passing an abortion procedures ban (S. 1692)  in late October. (See related article).  More good news came with a 10 percent increase in funding for Title X domestic family planning programs, as well as an increase for the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant.

However, unfortunately, funding for abstinence-only programs also increased.  And, Republican leadership snipped away at contraceptive coverage for federal employees by allowing their health benefit plans to claim an expanded religious exemption that could also include pharmacies.

The House passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, H.R. 2436, which makes it a crime to cause the death or injury of a fetus by causing harm to the pregnant woman (254-172).  Passage of this bill by the Senate could lead to legal recognition of a fetus as a person.

We suffered a serious setback in ongoing efforts to deal with the national child care crisis, when the House slashed the Senate-endorsed funding level of $2 billion for Child Care and Development Block Grant to less than $1.182 billion.

Tax Cuts At What Cost?

Even though the unconscionable $800 billion Republican tax cut was rejected by President Clinton, many smaller tax cuts are hidden throughout budget measures under negotiation.  To help pay for these cuts, Republicans imposed a .38 percent across-the-board reduction in all federal spending and made deeper cuts in a wide range of social services programs, including Head Start and numerous employment programs.  The House failed to vote on a minimum wage bill that would have raised the $5.15 per hour minimum by one dollar over two years, but observers expect that a strong minimum wage bill will pass this year, a positive side-effect of election year politics.

Thanks to an outpouring of objections from activists, the House restored gender equity provisions in education to H.R. 2, the Student Results Act, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  These gender equity programs (including the Women's Educational Equity Act) have supported teacher training, curriculum materials and targeted education to improve opportunities for girls, young women and low-income, at-risk students.  Reps. Connie Morella, R-Md., Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., restored these provisions by offering an amendment, which was adopted by a sizable majority vote on the House floor.

Sex Trafficking

Politics make strange bedfellows as the old saying goes, and women's rights advocates found themselves working with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., to draft a strong anti-sex- trafficking bill (H.R. 3244).  NOW Foundation's Twiss Butler, collaborating with international human rights activists at Equality Now, helped draft language to require better protection of women and tougher prosecution of individuals involved in trafficking.

Especially important was a broad definition of trafficking which covers all sex traffickers, whether or not their victims "consent" to being exploited.  The bill requires imposition of sanctions against countries that allow or facilitate trafficking—a provision which the Clinton administration opposes.

Helms Strikes Again

In a widely reported incident, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., had Capitol police remove a dozen women members of Congress from his Foreign Relations Committee hearing when the group protested his refusal to consider CEDAW, the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (more on CEDAW).

Sen. Helms also delayed committee consideration of the nomination of former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., to become ambassador to New Zealand.  Helms was asking Moseley-Braun to apologize to him for comments she made years ago when she criticized Helms' support for renewing a federal patent which included the Confederate battle flag.  After pressure from women's rights advocates and negotiations with the administration, he finally allowed the nomination to go to the floor where it was approved by voice vote in early November.

More Measures Threaten Women's Well-Being

The House passed legislation to prevent the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from implementing an ergonomics standard designed to reduce injuries from repetitive motion.  More than 230,000 women each year sustain these types of injuries which occur on manufacturing lines, in nursing homes and in data/word processing.

At the close of this first session, the Senate was mired in conflict over a long list of amendments to the Bankruptcy Reform Act (S. 625), which had already passed the House.  Among these amendments was one proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to close loopholes in bankruptcy law that allow clinic violence defendants (like Randall Terry) to declare bankruptcy in order to avoid paying fines, penalties and judgments for damages they have caused.

S. 625 as a whole is a regressive measure that would make it more difficult for individuals to reorganize their personal finances.  Women now constitute the fastest growing group of bankruptcy filers, often in the wake of divorce.  The act would also put credit card debt on an equal footing with child support, making collection of past due support more difficult.

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