WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Susan Cohen joined a 60-member group of reproductive rights activists who met with the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama in mid-December and left the gathering feeling upbeat.
"They were already quite knowledgeable about our agenda and very interested in what we had to say," said Cohen, director of government affairs for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization with headquarters in New York and Washington.
Many in the women’s advocacy community share that optimism and are targeting Bush-era regulations on reproductive health and rights, labor and education for Obama-era reversals.
Two of the changes–reversing the so-called global gag rule and restoring congressional funding to the United Nations Population Fund–are expected in Obama’s first days in the Oval Office and both are expected to have widespread international repercussions for reproductive health.
First imposed by GOP President Ronald Reagan and reinstated by the two Bush administrations, the global gag rule–also known as the Mexico City policy because Reagan announced it at a meeting there in 1984–prevents foreign recipients of State Department-administered family planning grants from performing abortions, counseling women about abortion or lobbying their nations to change abortion restrictions.
Both Obama and his Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton said during their presidential campaigns that they would release $45 million in annual appropriations for the United Nations Population Fund.
U.N. Funding at Stake
For seven years the Bush administration has denied a total of $235 million in congressionally approved funds to the U.N. agency that works to reduce maternal deaths in over 180 countries, including those with coercive sterilization policies like China.
Because China is only one of hundreds of the agency’s recipients, Bush’s refusal to contribute is often decried as another way of rewarding opponents of family planning.
"I think President-elect Obama has a strong commitment to preventing unintended pregnancy," said Jessica Arons, director of women’s issues at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank whose president, John Podesta, is on leave to head up the transition team.
Arons also said the new administration would likely take aim at the so-called conscience rule, which current Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt issued on Dec. 18. It allows any health care employee to refuse to provide abortion or certain kinds of contraceptive services for personal reasons. Two options for overturning the regulation–through the Congress or an agency review process–could be lengthy and complicated.
A Third Fix
But there is a third fix, which Obama has already promised: canceling the rule.
To do this, Anne Joseph O’Connell, an assistant law professor and expert in agency regulations at University of California, Berkeley, said Obama could issue a memorandum to federal agencies ordering the suspension of any regulations that have yet to take effect. This would include the conscience rule and other rules finalized 60 days before Jan. 20.
O’Connell said that while suspended rules are supposed to be revisited by the next administration, they rarely are.
Many advocates are also expecting the Obama administration to make regulatory changes in health, labor and education.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards hailed the appointment of Sen. Tom Daschle as the next secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, which administers over 300 programs including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Food and Drug Administration. "Former Sen. Daschle has a strong record of standing up for women’s health and women’s rights and supporting commonsense policies," she said in a statement.
The reproductive rights coalition that met with the transition team on Dec. 12 published a 55-page agenda outlining steps that Obama can take in his first 100 days. Those include fixing an administrative error in the Deficit Reduction Act that raised the monthly cost of birth control for low-income women and students to $40 to $50, up from between $5 and $10 a month. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote to HHS Secretary Leavitt to correct the error affecting about 4 million women, but the error stayed in place.
On Dec. 19, Obama nominated Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., a champion of worker’s rights, as labor secretary.
Bush’s Department of Labor weakened anti-discrimination tools such as the monitoring of federal contracts that go to female-owned businesses, said Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for governmental relations at Legal Momentum, a women’s legal advocacy group based in New York. She hopes the next secretary of labor will rebuild an incubator program for female small business owners under the department’s Office of Small Business Programs.
Enforcing Title IX
Bush-era education regulations are also on the radar.
Both Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden support eliminating gender discrimination through enforcing and expanding federal laws, according to Change.gov, the transition team’s Web site.
The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education submitted two pages of first- year recommendations to the Obama administration. Posted on Change.gov, they focus on both specific issues such as stricter enforcement of Title IX, the 1972 law guaranteeing sex equity in education, and more general ways to improve education for women.
As one of the drafters of the recommendations, Lisa Maatz, public policy director at the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C., has met with the transition team on 10 occasions.
Maatz wants Obama’s secretary of education–current chief of Chicago public schools Arne Duncan–to rescind a 2005 modification by the Department of Education that she and other critics say relaxed enforcement standards of Title IX.
The modification allowed administrators to use an e-mail survey to students to show whether it is meeting the interests of female athletes. Since a student’s failure to respond to the survey could be counted as a lack of interest, Maatz calls it "civil rights enforcement via spam."
Neither Obama’s transition team nor former advisors responded to requests for comment for this article.
Julia Marsh is a DC-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.