Women's Enews, June 14, 2007
New Congress Drains Helium From Pro-Choice Hopes
By Allison Stevens
Reproductive rights advocates are beginning to realize the new
Democratic-controlled Congress is no cakewalk. Democrats have
approved millions more for abstinence-only programs and failed
to approve emergency contraception for military pharmacies.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Reproductive rights advocates looked
forward to better electoral days ahead when Republicans lost control
of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.
But six months later, those same people are beginning to let
the helium out of their once high hopes.
"We're six months into this session and we've seen very
few tangible results," said Jacqueline Payne, assistant director
of government relations at the Planned Parenthood Federation of
The dismay was underscored last week when Democratic appropriators
approved a spending bill that would increase funding for abstinence-only
sex education programs.
Since Bush took office, federal funding for abstinence-only programs
has soared to $176 million from $80 million in fiscal 2001, according
to NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Teachers in federally funded abstinence-only programs--which
have absorbed $1.5 billion in federal dollars over the last 25
years--are permitted to discuss birth control only in the context
of its failure rate.
The programs are strongly backed by President Bush, but support
was expected to have been hurt by a study conducted on behalf
of the Department of Health and Human Services that found that
abstinence-only sex-education programs have no effect on rates
of sexual abstinence, the age of first intercourse or students'
number of sexual partners.
But instead of voting to delete or diminish the funding, members
of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and
Human Services and Education increased abstinence-education funding
by $28 million, as Bush sought in fiscal 2008 budget request.
The bill faces a vote in the full Appropriations Committee today.
"Let's face it, with friends like these, who needs conservative
Republicans?" James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth
in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "By continuing
to fund these ineffective programs, the House Democratic leadership
has signaled that the health and well-being of America's teens
are not their priority. Young people and their parents should
'Prevention First' Counter Measure
In something of a counter measure to the abstinence programs,
Democrats last winter introduced The Prevention First Act, which
would ease access to contraception, require insurers to cover
birth control, increase funding for comprehensive sex education
programs, and ensure that women can get their prescriptions for
birth control filled.
Key Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of
Nevada and House Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter of New
York are backing the bill.
But that legislation has yet to begin moving through the committee
process, and time is running out as Congress faces pressure to
complete the 13 annual must-pass appropriations bills before the
end of the year.
Meanwhile, the presidential election is heating up, which will
make it more difficult for lawmakers to reach the kind of bipartisan
compromises needed to pass legislation related to reproductive
To hasten the process, family planning advocates launched two
public relations campaigns last week about efforts to restrict
access to birth control. The National Council of Jewish Women
in Washington, D.C., kicked off "Plan A," and the Women
Donors Network joined forces with the Communications Consortium
Media Center to start "Birth Control Watch." Both are
aimed at stirring voters--a vast majority of whom support access
to contraception--to pressure lawmakers to remove barriers to
As the first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi has given
some women's rights advocates confidence that she will block legislation
they deem damaging to women.
But many women's rights advocates say pushing their agenda through
Congress is still very difficult.
Last month, Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat from Maine, withdrew
an amendment to a defense authorization bill that would have required
military pharmacies to stock emergency contraceptives. The Democratic
chairman of the jurisdictional subcommittee, Rep. Vic Snyder of
Arkansas, opposed the bill, and it was unclear whether it had
enough support among committee members--a majority of whom are
Democratic--to win passage.
The legislation would have reversed a decision in 2002 by political
appointees at the Department of Defense to block an internal plan
to make emergency contraception available at all military health
Even though the House and Senate are now controlled by Democrats--a
party that officially backs the right to abortion--the majority
of lawmakers still oppose full reproductive rights, according
to NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Washington-based pro-choice lobby.
Majority Oppose Abortion
Of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, 219--a slight
majority--currently oppose abortion rights, and another 51 members
have a mixed record on the subject. In the Senate, only 35 of
the 100 senators have strong pro-choice records; 48 strongly oppose
abortion and 17--including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada--have
Further damping prospects for pro-choice legislation is Bush,
who recently threatened to veto "any legislation that weakens
federal policies and laws on abortion or that encourages the destruction
of human life at any stage."
"We don't have enough control yet," said Kim Gandy,
president of the National Organization for Women. "We don't
have a filibuster-proof majority, and we don't have a veto-proof
majority, and until we have those things--and of course a president
who will sign forward-looking legislation--we will continue to
be in this rut."
Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, an
advocacy group in Arlington, Va., echoed that thought at a conference
last week marking the 42nd anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut,
the Supreme Court ruling that legalized birth control.
"Key people, many of our committee chairs, are not with
us," she said.
Reasons to Celebrate
But women's rights activists have had some reasons to celebrate
as well as suffer disappointment over the past six months.
The House passed legislation last month that would expand existing
"hate crimes" laws to include gender and other categories
such as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The
bill faces a possible veto from Bush, but women's rights advocates
saw House passage as a significant symbolic victory.
The same House subcommittee that approved at $28 million increase
in funding for abstinence-only education also approved an increase
of the same amount for Title X funding, the money that pays basic
operating costs at family planning clinics around the country
that serve millions of low-income women.
The increase would be the largest hike for family planning programs
in a quarter century, Mary Jane Gallagher, president of the National
Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, said in a
statement. "We applaud Chairman Obey and the subcommittee
for taking a giant step toward reducing unwanted pregnancies and
the need for abortion."
And Michigan Democrat John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy
and Commerce Committee, has pledged to kill $50 million in federal
funding for a separate abstinence-only education program that
is administered by the states. It is unclear whether Senate Democrats
will follow suit and allow the program--which draws an additional
$38 million match from the states--to lapse.
Democratic appropriators may also weaken a policy--the so-called
global gag rule--that bars international aid to groups who work
on abortion issues and possibly a separate one that prohibits
domestic federal funding of abortion.
Still, women's rights groups lack the kind of congressional support
they need to push through their entire agenda, Gandy said. "That's
not to say we won't pass some things," she said, "but
we won't pass everything that we would like to pass."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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