Kim Gandy

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 America.

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 be outraged.”

‘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 rights.

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 birth control.

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 facilities.

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 mixed views.

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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