WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Now that the House and Senate are friendlier to choice, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, has newfound optimism as she looks ahead to reproductive rights in the new congressional session.
"We can now focus on improving and strengthening women's lives by prioritizing prevention, improving access to contraceptives and restoring funding for international family planning," she said in a recent interview.
But with more than 170 anti-choice votes taken in Congress between 1995 and 2005--a decade when it was led by social and religious conservatives--Maloney sees the immediate lawmaking agenda as primarily remedial.
That was the case on Friday--the day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion--when President Obama repealed the "global gag rule," that bars international planning organizations that receive U.S. aid from providing abortion or abortion counseling while working abroad. President Reagan implemented the rule in the 1980s. President Clinton repealed it early in his presidency, and President Bush reinstated shortly after he took power.
Maloney and other reproductive rights advocates hope Obama soon follows up on another campaign promise: Freeing up annual funding of at least $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund, the international family planning agency in New York. Bush has blocked the funding allocation since 2001. The Obama administration is expected to restore the funding in the next federal budget proposal.
And they want Obama to reverse a recent Bush regulation--known as the "conscience rule"--that allows health care providers at organizations that receive federal funding to refuse to provide abortion, contraception services or counseling if they object for personal reasons.
Rolling Back Restrictions
Maloney also wants to widen access to non-prescription emergency contraception to women under 18. Bush officials imposed that age restriction against the advice of public health officials at the Food and Drug Administration.
She'd also like lawmakers to roll back a law that bars military women from using their own funds to pay for abortions at military hospitals; as a result, military women must fly back to the United States to have the procedure. "Here we have an example of women serving in the military, protecting our constitutional rights, yet their constitutional right for choice was not protected," she said.
Going beyond the legislative repair work, Maloney is also talking about persuading Democrats in the White House and Congress to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, the international treaty signed by 185 countries that is considered a global bill of rights for women.
"The United States stands with seven countries, including some of the most backward in the world, Iran, Sudan, Qatar and others . . . in not ratifying CEDAW," Maloney said. "But 185 countries can't be wrong. We should show the world that we do support education and health care for women by voting to ratify the CEDAW treaty."
Critics say the 1979 treaty would promote abortion because it promotes access to family planning services, some of which offer abortion or abortion-related counseling. But proponents say the treaty is "abortion neutral" and note the word abortion does not appear in the text but simply calls for equality in health care.
Pro-Choice Election Gains
In November, the nation elected a pro-choice president and sent 21 additional pro-choice advocates to the House of Representatives and five more to the Senate.
That produced a new majority for choice in the House and a near filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America in Washington, D.C., the nation's leading abortion rights lobby.
Now, 232 lawmakers in the House favor at least some access to abortion, while 204 members staunchly oppose it. In the Senate, 58 members favor or have mixed views on the subject, while 42 oppose it.
"That's an important gain for the pro-choice movement," said Maloney, who spoke about women's reproductive health and rights at a Women's eNews panel discussion in Denver during the Democratic National Convention.
But with legislators' pro-choice convictions less than uniformly ironclad, she and other activists are focused, for now, on the lower-hanging legislative fruit: reversing anti-choice policies implemented by the Bush administration.
An eight-term veteran of the House, Maloney has been battle-tested in the fight for women's reproductive health and equal rights.
In 2004, when the Department of Justice deleted a reference to emergency contraception from its guidelines to the nation's hospitals about how to provide treatment to rape victims, Maloney noticed.
She sent a letter to Alberto Gonzales, then the attorney general, questioning the administration's move. When he didn't reply, she showed up unannounced at a Washington, D.C., hearing on the department's new guidelines. She asked to testify, but was instead told to leave quietly or be hauled out by security.
"The incident exposed the hearing for what it was: a cynical formality constructed to muzzle an opposing viewpoint," wrote Maloney in her 2008 book "Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated."
Funding Blueprint for Women's Programs
Reproductive rights advocates are also watching the federal budget, which will be released in February and serve as Obama's blueprint for members of Congress as they dole out federal dollars in the coming year. "The president's budget sets the tone for how the funding works," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Amid that, Obama's support for abortion rights could mean more money for domestic and international family planning programs and for comprehensive sex education programs, which had been starved of funding under President Bush.
Keenan also expects new vacancies on the Supreme Court and will lobby for nominees who support the judicial philosophy of privacy that enshrines abortion rights.
As for legislation, NARAL Pro-Choice America has put forward the Prevention First Act, an omnibus bill backed by Obama during the presidential campaign that is aimed at reducing unintended pregnancy. But Keenan doubts whether the Prevention First Act will survive the lawmaking process as a standalone bill; instead she expects to see elements of the bill--such as more family planning funding--move in a piecemeal fashion.
Other reproductive rights objectives include passing the Freedom of Choice Act. This bill, which has been introduced in previous legislative sessions, would codify the right to abortion in federal law.
Repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars the government from helping low-income women pay for abortion and also prohibits funding abortion through federal health care programs and by insurance for federal employees, is another major objective for rights activists.
Keenan said her group is not actively lobbying for these bills, however, because there are still not enough lawmakers who actively support them.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.