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National NOW Times >> Winter 2003/2004 >> Article

Legislative Update

by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director

End of Year Funding Bills Leave Lives in the Balance

Title X domestic family planning programs received an increase of $5 million over last year, for a total of $278 million in the Fiscal Year 2004 Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill totaling $61.7 billion. However, the bill contains suspicious language asking for "voluntary" reporting by Title X clinics about whether they offer abortion services with non-Title X funds. Local "abstinence until marriage" programs received a staggering 27 percent increase from $55 to $75 million. Three other funding streams for various abstinence programs will add another $62 million to the total.

International Family Planning assistance programs will receive $429 million, although $375.5 million of that is earmarked for the Child Survival and Health account, which has no actual family planning component. U.N. population assistance (UNFPA) is slotted for $25 million, but Bush is likely to block the release of those monies as he did last year with the $34 million allocation. The Senate passed a provision in the FY 2004 Foreign Operation spending bill that would overturn the global gag rule, but it was dropped from the final version.

VAWA Funding Lower

Appropriations for Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) programs, languising in the still-unapproved $820 billion omnibus appropriations bill, fall short of expectations. The omnibus bill leaves the funding levels at the lower House bill amounts, for example, $15 million less than the Senate allowed for Department of Justice VAWA programs. There is also a $15.9 million reduction in the total available for VAWA grants to states, and to state and tribal Domestic Violence coalitions—a cut that will hurt many services providers and weaken alliances.

VAWA programs funded through the Department of Health and Human Services were about the same level as last year's, providing $124.6 million (an $800,000 reduction from FY 03) to Family Violence Prevention and Safety programs and $3 million for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (an increase of $400,000). Overall VAWA funding is $567.3 million for FY 04.

Welfare Reauthorization Postponed

When the Senate schedule became too crowded to consider renewal of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, a continuing resolution maintained funding through March 2004. Meanwhile, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund released a report in mid-December on women's poverty in the U.S. Based on 2002 Census Bureau statistics, women are 41 percent more likely to be poor than men, and women ages 65 or over are 61 percent more likely to live in poverty than men in the same age group.

The previously mentioned $820 billion omnibus spending bill, containing seven major appropriation measures for the fiscal year that began October 1, 2003, was passed by the House before it adjourned. But the Senate put off a final vote to January so that Congress could go home for the holidays. At press time, the federal government is operating under a Continuing Resolution.

Overtime Pay Jeopardized

Last fall, Bush's Department of Labor proposed changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would deny overtime pay to millions of workers, and allow employers to force millions of others to work longer hours without additional pay. Under pressure from NOW and others, both houses of Congress voted to ban these rules from taking effect. When the Republican leadership piled all the un-passed appropriations bills into the $820 billion omnibus spending package, George W. Bush threatened a veto of the whole budget bill if the overtime pay protections were left in—so congressional leaders knuckled under and the protections were dropped. Join us in urging your Congressmembers to stay strong and eliminate this assault on working people—go to www.now.org/congress to see all of our action alerts and send an instant message to your representatives.

Abortion Procedures Targeted

Legislation that would remove Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of mifepristone (commonly called RU-486, a non-surgical means of abortion before 12 weeks) was introduced recently by Republican Reps. Jim Demint, S.C., and Roscoe Bartlett, Md., along with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. They have dubbed their bill "Holly's Law," after a California woman, Holly Patterson, who died of sepsis several days after taking mifepristone, although her death has not been attributed officially to mifepristone.

In addition, the "prayers for PMS" doctor, Dr. W. David Hager, Bush's anti-abortion rights ally who was appointed to the FDA's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs, is pushing hard for an FDA review of mifepristone. He had previously assisted in the preparation of a petition by an anti-abortion group asking the FDA to ban the drug. Mifepristone is, in fact, a remarkably safe drug as established over 22 years of use in 27 countries.

And as most everyone knows by now, Bush signed an abortion procedures ban (the so-called "Partial-Birth Abortion" Ban) into law on Nov. 5 in front of a crowd of cheering opponents of women's reproductive rights.

FDA Considers Emergency Contraception

Two advisory committees to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted on Dec. 16 to recommend that Plan B emergency contraception (the "morning-after" pill) be sold over the counter. NOW President Kim Gandy and more than a dozen NOW activists from New York and Florida testified in favor of increasing women's access to this important option. Activists offered personal accounts about how difficult it has been to obtain emergency contraception, with delays in seeing doctors and limited pharmacy hours. The hearings drew lots of press interest, garnering a front page New York Times story which featured a photo of Gandy testifying. A final decision by FDA officials is expected soon.

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