Women’s Health Caught in Congress’s Holiday Rush

Allison Stevens

Reproductive health advocates are pushing for several bills to become law before Congress adjourns for the holidays. Low-cost contraception and postpartum research are high priorities to make it through the legislative backlog.

Reproductive health advocates want federal lawmakers to enact a series of bills in time for the holidays. At the top of their wish list is legislation to lower the cost of birth control drugs on college campuses and at health care clinics that serve low-income women. They also want more money to finance family planning programs and study postpartum depression.

And they want it now.

Next year, when the presidential campaign further polarizes Capitol Hill, the kind of bipartisan compromise needed to pass reproductive health bills will be next to impossible to reach, advocates fear.

"We absolutely need Congress to act," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York, said about a bill to allow pharmaceutical companies to return to their practice of selling birth control drugs at steep discounts on college campuses and clinics. "Every day we don't solve this problem there are more and more people who don't have access to birth control."

Higher prices are an unintended consequence of a provision in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, an omnibus spending bill passed in 2006. New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley introduced legislation that would restore eligibility for discounted contraceptives for college and low-cost health providers on Nov. 1. Democratic Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Claire McCaskill of Missouri followed suit with similar legislation on Nov. 13.

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If Congress does not pass the bill, women will continue to pay up to 10 times as much for birth control at clinics serving college and low-income women, Richards said.

Prices began to increase in January, when the Deficit Reduction Act took effect. Some clinics were able to temporarily defray the higher costs by purchasing low-cost contraceptives in anticipation of the change, but those stocks are nearly depleted. Now prices are as high as $40 or $50 a month–up from $5 to $10–at hundreds of clinics.

The House and Senate bills have the backing of Democrats and some moderate Republicans. Party leaders have signaled support, Crowley said in a telephone conference earlier this month, but have not scheduled committee or floor action.

The bill could win speedier passage if it is attached to major legislation currently in Congress, such as one of the 13 annual must-pass budget appropriations bills.

"We have some time here before we leave Washington, and I'm very hopeful we can get this passed this year," Crowley said.

But passing the contraceptive bill through both chambers will be difficult at a time when lawmakers are under pressure to complete action on 12 of the 13 spending bills, reach agreement on funding for the war in Iraq, reauthorize a 2002 farm law and change federal tax policy.

Working Women into the Agenda

Also on advocates' holiday wish list is a bill to increase federal family planning funding by $28 million. The increase–the largest in 25 years–is included in a $151 billion bill funding the Labor and Health and Human Services departments that cleared Congress earlier this month. But Bush vetoed the bill on Nov. 13 because he considered it too expensive.

Advocates are also asking for legislation that would finance federal programs to raise awareness and study postpartum depression. The bill cleared the House in October and now awaits action in the Senate. It has support from such groups as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America, the leading abortion rights lobby in the country; and Postpartum Support International in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Moving pro-choice legislation has not been as easy as was predicted at the beginning of the year, when California Democrat Nancy Pelosi–a staunch advocate for women's reproductive rights–became the first female Speaker of the House.

Even though Congress is now controlled by Democrats–a party that officially backs the right to abortion–the majority of lawmakers in both chambers still oppose full reproductive rights, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. That opposition includes moderate Democrats who support some restrictions.

Cutting Deals in Congress

The numbers have meant that pro-choice lobbyists have had to give up some ground.

In order to move the postpartum research bill through a narrowly divided House, for example, Democrats brokered a deal with anti-choice Republicans to include language that calls for studies on depression after abortion and miscarriage.

The language furthered anti-choice efforts to legitimize "post-abortion syndrome," a disorder coined by anti-choice activists that is not recognized by either the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association. The language has since been watered down to require research on all outcomes of pregnancy rather than just the post-abortion syndrome.

Congress was able to secure more money for family planning services in the Labor and Health and Human Services spending bill. But to do that, Democrats supported increased funding for abstinence-only sex education programs by $28 million even though they were found to be ineffective in an April study authorized by Congress.

Enhanced abstinence-only education is "the most significant setback" this year, said Donna Crane, director of government relations at NARAL Pro-Choice America. "It's very disappointing. It's going to take more than one year to turn that ship around."

Pushing for Victory

Still, pro-choice groups have had reason to celebrate.

Congress is forcing a showdown with Bush over the so-called global gag rule, which bars distribution of U.S. family planning funds to clinics in other countries that provide abortion or abortion counseling or lobby on abortion policies.

The Senate passed a foreign spending bill that would overturn the rule, while the House voted to weaken it by allowing the United States to provide condoms to groups that are otherwise ineligible for aid.

The foreign spending bill faces a likely veto from Bush, who threatened to block "any legislation that weakens federal policies and laws on abortion or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage."

Without solid majorities in favor of full reproductive rights, pro-choice lawmakers have largely taken a defensive rather than offensive posture.

In October, the Senate rejected an amendment to the Labor-Health bill that would have barred federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other health care clinics that perform abortion services. The House beat back a similar amendment in July.

Lawmakers also rejected an amendment to the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill to codify a Bush administration policy that allows states to make embryos and fetuses eligible for government insurance programs, a move to elevate the status of the fetus and lay the legal foundation for granting rights of personhood. (The bill has since been vetoed.)

"We were very excited about the anti-choice attacks we were able to beat back with new leadership," Crane said. "We are also very aware that the numbers will continue to pose a real problem for us. We need to make some more gains in the 2008 elections before we can make some real progress."

This article was first published by Women's eNews.

News Abortion

Pennsylvania’s TRAP Law Could Be the Next to Go Down

Teddy Wilson

The Democrats' bill would repeal language from a measure that targets abortion clinics, forcing them to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical facilities.

A Pennsylvania lawmaker on Wednesday introduced a bill that would repeal a state law requiring abortion clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical facilities (ASF). The bill comes in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down a similar provision in Texas’ anti-choice omnibus law known as HB 2.

A similar so-called targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law was passed in Pennsylvania in 2011 with bipartisan majorities in both the house and state senate, and was signed into law by former Gov. Tom Corbett (R).

SB 1350, sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) would repeal language from Act 122 that requires abortion clinics to meet ASF regulations. The text of the bill has not yet been posted on the state’s legislative website.

The bill is co-sponsored by state Sens. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia), Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia), and Judy Schwank (D-Berks).

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Leach said in a statement that there has been a “nationwide attack on patients and their doctors,” but that the Supreme Court’s ruling upholds the constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy.

“Abortion is a legal, Constitutionally-protected right that should be available to all women,” Leach said. “Every member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly swore an oath to support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States, so we must act swiftly to repeal this unconstitutional requirement.”

TRAP laws, which single out abortion clinics and providers and subject them to regulations that are more stringent than those applied to medical clinics, have been passed in several states in recent years.

However, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that struck down two of the provisions in HB 2 has already had ramifications on similar laws passed in other states with GOP-held legislatures.

The Supreme Court blocked similar anti-choice laws in Wisconsin and Mississippi, and Alabama’s attorney general announced he would drop an appeal to a legal challenge of a similar law.

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.