National NOW Foundation Times >> Spring 2009  >> Article

Time to Celebrate! Positive Steps for Women's Reproductive Health

By Jan Erickson, Director of Programs, NOW Foundation

Keep Abortion Legal!

Photo by Lisa Bennett

NOW staff, interns and other activists rally in front of the Supreme Court on the Jan. 22 anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Within days of being sworn in, President Barack Obama withdrew the dangerous Mexico City Policy. This "global gag rule" prohibited federal funding for international family planning organizations that, even with their own funds, provided or even discussed abortions -- a policy that would be unconstitutional in our own country. The gag rule decimated reproductive health programs in over 100 countries desperately in need of services. Especially hard hit was Africa, where clinics serving 1.5 million women were closed for lack of funding. Repeal of the gag rule was at the top of NOW's recommendations for the new administration, and we were pleased to see the president's swift action.

NOW and its allies also welcomed the restoration of U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the FY '09 omnibus bill (H.R. 1105). Since 2002, some $235 million intended for UNFPA was redirected to other programs by the Bush administration. UNFPA works in 150 countries to provide family planning aid, promote women's rights and ensure access to reproductive health services. A Republican amendment to delete funding for UNFPA was defeated in a 39-55 vote.

On Feb. 4, President Obama signed a bill (H.R.2) reauthorizing the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), after many delays under the Bush administration. SCHIP contains a new provision allowing legal immigrant children (up to age 21) and pregnant women to receive health benefits from SCHIP and Medicaid without the five-year residency requirement. NOW and the National Coalition for Immigrant Women's Rights (NCIWR), which we helped launch, worked diligently for adoption of this provision. H.R.2 also expanded coverage for families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance. The $33 billion required to cover a new total of 11 million persons will come from an increase in the federal cigarette tax.

In early March, the Obama administration issued notice that it would rescind the Bush administration's harmful federal refusal rule. This rule would have cut federal funding to health care entities that do not let their employees deny provision of medical services that they find personally objectionable. Targeted under this rule are services such as birth control, emergency contraception, and screening and treatment for AIDS or other sexually-transmitted infections. The refusal rule was one of 90 "midnight" regulations pushed through in the closing days of the Bush presidency, and its reversal was one of NOW's urgent recommendations to the new administration. NOW activists sent numerous messages to the Department of Health and Human Services stressing the dangerous and unethical nature of the Bush rule and urging its repeal.

Another reason to celebrate is the restoration of affordable birth control for campus and low-income health clinics in the fiscal year 2009 appropriations bill. Republicans tried to strip this provision and failed. For the past three years, NOW and our reproductive rights allies have lobbied Congress to reverse the provision included in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act that cut off campus and safety-net health care providers from receiving contraceptives at minimal prices. Women who relied on these centers for low-cost birth control saw prices jump by as much as ten times.

Affordable birth control is especially important during these times of economic crisis. Already, many reproductive health service providers are reporting an increase in calls from women with unintended pregnancies who say they cannot afford a child and some are delaying abortion procedures until they can cover the costs, according to the Chicago Tribune.

During the February debate on the economic recovery package, conservatives attacked the Medicaid Family Planning State Option, claiming that only job creation provisions should be included. The measure would have eliminated the waiver process for the 23 affected states to apply Medicaid funds toward family planning services for eligible women, extending coverage to as many as 2.3 million more women over the next five years.

Congressional leaders caved and removed the provision from the plan. Meeting with administration officials and supporters in Congress, NOW leaders voiced our objection and urged that the state option be included in other legislation. Our concerns were heeded, and the Medicaid State Family Planning Option is now in the president's FY '10 budget.

The president's 2010 budget also provides for comprehensive, age-appropriate and medically-accurate sex education programs, though full details of the budget plan were not immediately available. We are pleased that the administration recognizes the crucial importance of comprehensive sex education, especially in light of the rise in recent years of sexually-transmitted infections among young people, especially young women of color, and the increase in teen pregnancy rates.

Also on the list of top priorities for reproductive health advocates is a repeal of the Hyde Amendment. In place since 1976, the amendment is a ban on federal funding of abortion services. Unfortunately, a repeal of the Hyde Amendment was not included in the FY '09 omnibus and is likely not included in the FY '10 budget plan. Some observers speculate that a Hyde repeal may not be achievable until many more reproductive rights supporters are elected to Congress and Obama is elected for a second term.

The lesson learned from the first few months of the new Congress and administration is that even though many dedicated reproductive rights advocates are now serving at high levels, activists still have to work hard to make change.