By Peggy Simpson
Monies to expand family planning services for poor women that were cut from the stimulus package are restored in President Obama’s proposed budget, and the administration rescinds a last-minute Bush Administration rule that would have severely weakened women’s access to reproductive health services.
March 11, 2008
While the political world was watching the food fight between top Democrats and conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, President Obama and congressional Democrats moved smartly to restore key women’s reproductive rights that came under attack during the Bush Administration.
Obama set in motion rescission of the most egregious of President Bush’s so-called “midnight regulations” that would have substantially weakened women’s access to reproductive health services. Any health industry worker who objected to abortion or birth control on moral grounds arguably could have thwarted a woman’s access to reproductive services.
The Bush regulation took effect the day Obama was inaugurated, after months of controversy within the Department of Health and Human Services. It had been opposed by a bipartisan coalition of more than 150 members of Congress, governors, attorneys general and national medical associations—but strongly supported by the religious right.
NARAL argued that the “conscience” rule “could allow insurance companies to deny claims for the birth control pill, hospitals to refuse emergency contraception to rape survivors and employees at HMOs to refuse their patients referrals for abortion care.”
Obama’s move to rescind the greatly expanded “conscience clause” was printed in this Tuesday’s Federal Register, triggering a 30-day process of public comment that must occur before the new administration can act. Obama has said he supports a tightly written “conscience clause.”
“This is a commonsense fix,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and is consistent with goals to increase rather than hinder patients’ access to care.
Anti-abortion groups said Obama was overplaying his hand on abortion and stepped up their opposition. Women’s rights groups rallied their troops to use the 30-day comment period to spell out how the Bush regulation was dangerous. The National Women’s Law Center said, for instance, that “a woman with cervical cancer should never be denied information about the option to extract and freeze her eggs before her cancer treatment as a result of her health care provider’s religiously based opposition to infertility treatment.”
Two other reproductive health provisions also moved ahead.
The omnibus appropriations bill being debated by the Senate through late Tuesday contained a provision to restore access to discounted contraceptives for college students, the group with the highest rate of unintended pregnancy and the highest rate of abortion. Few college women are insured, either. Until 2005, drug companies had provided discounted contraceptives to college health centers and other safety-net health clinics, including a quarter of those run by Planned Parenthood. Bush excluded these clinics from discounted drug programs in a 2005 deficit-reduction bill. That sent costs soaring from $5 to $50 for a month’s supply of contraceptives.
Fixing it just never happened while Republicans were in charge. And, as the Democratic Congress with the support of Obama moved the “Affordable Birth Control Act” forward as part of the giant spending bill, Republicans tried to delete it. Senator Jim DeMint, R-SC, called it an “earmark” for Planned Parenthood.
A month ago during debate on the economic stimulus bill, DeMint and others succeeded in deleting a provision that would have enabled 23 states to expand family planning services, including contraceptives, to poor women. All other states already had gotten case-by-case waivers from Medicaid rules to do that.
Women’s rights groups were caught short by the anti-contraceptive offensive; their sound bites were no match for the likes of House Minority Leader John Boehner, who ridiculed the “$200 million spending on contraceptives.”
Obama backed deleting the contraceptive provision from the stimulus package, infuriating some congressional stalwarts but especially the feminist community.
Last week, however, he lived up to his promise to get the job done. His budget for 2010 contains funding to let those 23 states expand their family planning programs for poor women.
Earlier, Obama had backed restoration of U.S. funding for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), ending eight years of defunding by the Bush Administration. Congress is following up on that, including money for UNFPA—with the support of key pro-choice Republicans.
One of Obama’s first acts was to rescind the so-called “gag rule,” which had kept federal funding from U.S. family planning groups working internationally, because some of their global operations involved providing a full range of reproductive health services including abortion.
This, coupled with new funding for UNFPA, should be a shot in the arm for global efforts to reduce the horrendously high death rate for pregnant women.
Nine years ago, most UN members adopted Millennium Development Goals to attack poverty and life-threatening illnesses, especially in Asia and Africa. The least progress has been made in programs aimed at improving maternal and reproductive health. Ten million women die in childbirth in a generation.
The Bush Administration withheld $244 million in U.S. funding for UNFPA in the past seven years. The population fund’s executive director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, applauded Obama’s policy shift, saying access to reproductive health is at the core of the struggle to promote “equality for women and girls and economic development in the poorest region of the world.”
Peggy Simpson worked 17 years for the Associated Press, in Texas and Washington, D.C.; covered economics and politics for the Hearst Newspapers, served as Washington bureau chief for Ms. magazine and reported on Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to a Democratic market economy, as a freelancer during the 1990s. She has taught at Indiana University, George Washington University and at the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. She currently is a freelance writer in Washington.