Reproductive Rights Gains and Losses in Last Congress
by Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director
and Lisa Ensey, Government Relations Intern
Much to everyone's surprise, a handful of anti-reproductive rights measures
met with defeat and several victories were secured before Congress completed
business in October. These actions capped the otherwise relentlessly anti-abortion,
anti-contraception record of the 105th Congress. Fifty-three key
reproductive rights measures passed - 39 restrict access to services.
Action Center staff members and interns attend the vigil at the US Capitol
to honor slain doctor Barnett Slepian. NOW showed support for abortion
rights and those who continue to help provide access to full reproductive
services. Photo by Beth Corbin.
The most important action was the Senate vote to sustain the President's
veto of the abortion procedures ban (H.R.
1122); the breathtakingly narrow three-vote margin held fast. This
vaguely-worded and unconstitutional bill would have meant that before-
and after-viability abortions would be prohibited, with no exception for
the health of the woman and a very narrow life exception.
Friends and Foes Take Their Positions in the Next Session
Federal Employees Health Benefit Plans will now be required to provide
coverage for five Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) approved contraception medications - even though opponents had tried
to pull the provision in conference committee. Support from even those
members who normally oppose reproductive
rights helped restore the requirement, perhaps motivated by the fact
that they-as federal employees-and members of their families would benefit.
The more comprehensive Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraception
Coverage Act that would require private insurance companies who cover the
costs of prescription medication to also cover contraception costs was
denied a floor vote in the Senate. Advocates will make a more determined
effort in the 106th Congress to pass this important bill.
The "Teen Endangerment Act,"
as some dubbed it, went down in the closing days of the session, much to
NOW's relief. Entitled the Child Custody Protection Act (S.1645),
the bill would have made it a felony to take female minors across state
lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion if doing so would enable
the young woman to avoid the parental consent or notification laws of her
home state. Had the bill passed, the states would be facing the prospect
of jailing grandmothers, aunts or ministers if they assisted adolescents
facing a crisis pregnancy.
The House's determination to deny teens access to reproductive health services
at Title X
clinics also met defeat. Conservative legislators passed an amendment requiring
adolescents seeking prescription contraceptive drugs and devices to either
provide written parental consent or wait five business days while the clinic
sent a written notice to a parent or legal guardian. One of the intentions
of House contraception opponents was to limit the use of emergency contraception,
a key advance in controlling adolescent pregnancy rates. Fortunately, the
Senate refused to add this restriction in the final Omnibus Appropriations
In another victory for reproductive rights supporters, House and Senate
Agriculture spending bill conferees refused to include language that would
have withdrawn funds from the FDA for the review and approval of drugs
for early medical abortion. The primary objective was to prevent mifepristone
(RU-486) from being
released for general use; it is expected to be available sometime in 1999.
The infamous "global gag rule" that would impose free speech constraints-unconstitutional
in this country-on family planning organizations operating in other countries
was dropped during final budget negotations. Approved by the House, this
variation of the Mexico City policy would have denied U.S. family planning
funds to organizations that discuss abortion law and policy with colleagues
or government representatives, even if they did so with their own non-U.S.
funds. The gag rule language was included earlier this year in a
separate State Department authorization, but President Clinton vetoed it.
International family planning funding remained the same as last year ($385
million), but will be doled out in small monthly amounts, making program
operations very difficult, if not impossible for smaller programs. Opponents
also withdrew the $20 million U.S. contribution to the United National
Population Fund because they objected to the agency resuming work in China.
Good news generally prevailed in the funding arena. Title
X family planning programs gained an increase of $15 million for a
Fiscal Year 1999 total of $215 million. Congress increased the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention program for combating sexually-transmitted
diseases by $11.6 million (to total $124 million) and approved a
$16 million increase for breast and cervical cancer screening (for a total
of $159 million).
The Adolescent Family Life program, which advocates sexual abstinence for
teens, was funded at $17.7 million. However, at President's Clinton's request,
Congress cut a sizable $390 million from the $1.909 billion Social Services
Block Grant (Title
XX) program which funds local family planning clinics as well as a
myriad other vital programs.
The Nov. 3 general election produced a number
of pleasant surprises. The most welcome news: reproductive rights supporters
made small, but important, gains in the House of Representatives and held
onto at least 65 votes in the Senate to oppose the abortion procedures
In the States
A slight gain in favor of reproductive
rights occurred in state legislative elections, with the number of
legislative bodies having anti-choice majorities declining from 62 to 60
and the number of pro-choice majorities remaining the same at 26.
The difference appears in the number of closely divided legislative Houses
and Senates, up from 12 to 14. Some of the pro-choice legislative
bodies, though, may not always have a majority voting correctly on a given
The states elected one additional governor who supports reproductive
rights, Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, producing a breakdown of 20 supportive
governors, 20 opposed and 10 with mixed records. The state analysis, however,
is preliminary and subject to change pending further information.
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