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IN CONGRESS/108th Congress Legislative Wrap-Up

The 108th Congress adjourned on October 9, 2004, and returned after November 2 to finish its appropriations business. Now, all eyes are on the states and the focus in Washington has shifted from legislation to campaigns. But, in its wake, the 108th Congress left a stream of initiatives hostile to women and their reproductive health, and failed to pass any measures strengthening a woman's right to choose. In fact, the actions of this Congress were so harmful to choice that the National Right to Life Committee hailed the 108th Congress as the most successful yet for their movement.

This report will discuss some of the legislation that the 108th Congress introduced, considered and passed.

Efforts to Protect a Woman's Right to Choose

Supporters of choice did their best to introduce and advocate for legislation that would protect abortion and a woman's right to choose. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), H.R. 3719, was introduced by Representative Nadler (D-NY) on January 21, 2004. By the end of the Congress, 87 members had signed onto this legislation which prohibits government interference with a woman's right to choose to bear a child or terminate a pregnancy. FOCA would ensure that - even if the President fulfills his promise to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - America will never return to the pre-Roe reality of back alley abortions. H.R. 3719 was referred to the Judiciary Committee which did not take any additional action. NAF firmly supports this legislation and will be working in the 109th Congress to ensure that the Freedom of Choice Act becomes law.
  2. The Patient Privacy Protection Act, H.R. 5216, was also introduced by Representative Nadler on October 5, 2004. The bill amends the Federal Rules of Evidence to protect private medical information and ensure that it is not disclosed in court. The bill will also clarify that the federal rules of evidence guarantees a doctor-patient privilege. NAF believes that this legislation is critical to ensuring that women are protected when they make medical decisions and will work to pass the Patient Privacy Protection Act in the next Congress.
  3. The Senate Appropriations Committee, for the first time in three years, restored $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund, in its Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for FY 2005. Unfortunately, the House continued to withhold funding in its version of the bill. The United Nations Population Fund provides family planning services around the world, especially to women in developing countries. The Bush administration has repeatedly opposed funding for this program. NAF continues to support increased access to family planning and abortion services and applauds the Senate appropriators for restoring this crucial funding. As the bill moves towards conference, we will continue to press legislators to retain the funding in the final version of the bill.
  4. Representative Susan Davis (D-CA) offered an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 4200) that would have allowed women serving overseas to use their own funds to have abortions at military facilities. The amendment would not have required the government to spend any additional funds on abortion - it was offered solely so women overseas could have an abortion where they were stationed using their own money. Unfortunately, the amendment was voted down by a small margin: 28 Democrats joined 193 Republicans to defeat this common sense amendment.
  5. There were several other pieces of legislation that members introduced to protect and support choice, none of which made it out of its respective committee. NAF will continue to work in the next Congress to ensure that these pieces of legislation receive more attention and support. For example, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Co-Chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, introduced the Putting Prevention First Act. The bill, which had 130 cosponsors at the end of this session, would expand Title X services, authorizing additional funding for family planning services grants. Representative Slaughter also introduced bipartisan legislation called the Emergency Contraception Education Act on April 11, 2003. The bill would coordinate a public education campaign through the Department of Health and Human Services to the medical community and the public about the safety, use, and availability of emergency contraception.

Attacks on a Woman's Right to Choose

Opponents of choice worked especially hard in this Congress to restrict a woman's right to choose. Through both independent legislation and amendments to large appropriations bills, anti-choice members of Congress have continued their efforts to chip away at reproductive choice. The following are some examples:

  1. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act was signed into law by President Bush on April 1, 2004. Passed by the House and Senate under a guise of protecting pregnant women, the bill's sponsors refused to allow any real violence prevention measures, or even aid to victims, into the bill, illustrating their intent to erode the protections of Roe. The goal of the legislation was made clear when legislators were given the opportunity to vote for a substitute bill. The substitute had virtually identical criminal penalties but recognized that pregnant women, rather than fetuses, were the victims. However, Members voted against the alternative.
  2. The Federal Abortion Ban was signed into law by President Bush on November 5, 2003. The Ban, which would have affected women seeking abortions as early as 13 weeks into their pregnancies, was immediately challenged in federal court by NAF. NAF argued that the abortion ban was unconstitutional because it contained no exception for the woman's health and that the legislation was overbroad to point of banning safe abortion procedures in the second trimester. In August of 2004, Judge Richard Casey of the Southern District of New York held that the ban was unconstitutional. Two other federal courts, one in California and one in Nebraska, have also held the ban unconstitutional. The Justice Department has appealed all three decisions to the Courts of Appeal. This lawsuit underscores the need for judicial scrutiny of Congressional actions in the area of abortion legislation.
  3. The Child Custody Protection Act was introduced on April 10, 2003 by Representative Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in the House and Senator Ensign (R-NV) in the Senate. The bill would prohibit anyone other than a parent from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion if she has not already met her home state's parental involvement requirements. Unfortunately, this bill would deter young women from seeking assistance from a trusted adult. Under this legislation, grandparents, aunts, uncles, adult siblings or clergy could be prosecuted and jailed simply for supporting a young woman in crisis who seeks reproductive health services - even if that person did not intend, or even know, that the parental-involvement law of the state of residence has not been followed. For these reasons, the bill should be titled, "The Teen Endangerment Act."
  4. Representative Weldon (R-FL) offered an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (LHHS) Appropriations Bill which the committee adopted by voice vote. The amendment, modeled after the Abortion Anti-Discrimination Act, allows health care companies and providers to refuse to provide abortion services if they object on moral or religious grounds. If the LHHS Appropriations bill is adopted in its current form, a broad range of health care companies could refuse to comply with federal, state and local laws and regulations affecting abortion services.

In sum, the 108th Congress made over 20 anti-choice votes during its tenure and members of Congress hostile to reproductive rights consistently found new ways to attack choice and women's access to abortion. And although supporters of a woman's right to choose never stopped fighting these initiatives, there is still much work to be done to ensure that women's access to comprehensive reproductive health care remains intact. If you have any questions regarding any of the legislation listed above or about any of the actions taken by this Congress, please do not hesitate to contact Kristin Harrison, NAF's Federal Policy Director, at 202-667-5881.

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