True Common Ground for the 111th Congress

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True Common Ground for the 111th Congress

Kay Steiger

The 111th Congress has an opportunity to pass true common ground legislation that will ensure access to contraception and sexuality education. But will this agenda be derailed by those who push "abortion reduction" instead of reproductive health?

This election season, 14 Planned
Parenthood-endorsed Senate candidates secured
or retained seats
and 177 House pro-choice House members won their campaigns. The number
of pro-choice members of Congress is encouraging to the pro-choice
community, and the 111th Congress has the opportunity to pass choice-related
legislation that would make great strides on reproductive health care
access.  But while the women’s health community welcomed an election season that favored pro-choice candidates,
the anti-choice community added five pro-life Democrats to their ranks,
gaining more potential votes for "abortion reduction" legislation — measures that generally encourage adoption over abortion. In this 111th Congressional session, lawmakers have the opportunity to solidify
progressive legislation on reproductive rights that ensures access to common-ground measures like contraception and sexuality education while safeguarding access to abortion. But some legislators may
propose bills that
will sound appealing to constituents who are tired of debating the abortion
issue, but actually restrict reproductive choice for women. 

Some of the legislation on
the table this year was inspired by a report on reproductive health by Third Way, a think tank founded in 2005 to promote centrist policies and has called for a focus on efforts to reduce the need for abortion.  The Third Way report insists, despite the fact that
it found 66 percent of evangelicals believe abortion should either be
always illegal or illegal with few exceptions, that more than
half of evangelicals want to find a "middle ground" on abortion,
as Sarah Posner outlined in a recent article in The American

"Reducing the Need for Abortion
and Supporting Parents Act" is the bill that came out of Third Way’s
report. Posner reports that the legislation "does contain some provisions
for contraception and sex education but also includes a panoply of economic
and other provisions meant to reduce abortion, including funding for
ultrasound equipment, support for pregnant and parenting college and
graduate students, and funding for adoption-assistance programs."
But the bill also allows for so-called "informed consent" provisions,
which provide women with propaganda designed to dissuade them
from abortion and promote adoption. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) who has worked
with the Democrats for Life on their campaign to reduce abortion by 95%
in 10 years (numbers fiercely disputed by reproductive health advocates),
the 95-10
, sponsored
the bill; the leading Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT),
has historically been a strong leader on feminist issues like gender
pay equity (earlier versions of this bill–with fewer contraception
provisions–were known as the Reducing Need For Abortion bill and the
Pregnant Women Support Act. The bill was originally
by Democrats
for Life under their 95-10 initiative, but once the pro-choice provisions
were added to the bill, Democrats for Life dropped their endorsement). 

Ryan-DeLauro also proposes funding a "National Center for Parents of Adolescents,"
part of which would be a federal website designed to support parents in their
"essential role in preventing teen pregnancy." Much of this information
is already provided by Planned Parenthood, the Sexuality Information
Education Council in the United States (SIECUS), and other organizations
that support comprehensive and accurate sex education. DeLauro has gone
on the record saying she plans to introduce the legislation again this
year, but Congress could consider other legislation that would achieve
the same investment in prevention without mandating the distribution of adoption literature
to women who seek abortion care, for example. 

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Instead of looking to the flawed
Ryan-DeLauro legislation, Congress could look at the Prevention First
Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) that promotes contraception access by expanding health coverage for all women. The
bill calls for increasing Medicaid coverage for contraception and mandates
that private health insurers give the same coverage they give to other
prescription drugs to prescription birth control. The bill mandates
access to emergency contraception for rape and sexual assault victims
and calls for increased public education about the drug.  

Since Obama supported Prevention
First while in the Senate, the bill, if it passes Congress, stands a
very good chance of becoming law. It would reduce unintended pregnancies
and it doesn’t address more controversial barriers to reproductive health
care like the Hyde amendment, which bans federal Medicaid funding for
abortion services. Prevention First contains a section
called Responsible Education About Life (REAL), language that was originally introduced
by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) as an independent
bill to promote comprehensive sex education and requires that all sex
education teach "medically accurate information." The legislation
is already endorsed (PDF) by the National Family Planning &
Reproductive Health Organization as well as other pro-choice groups. REAL would reform funding for sex ed, requiring
that all information taught in sexual education is medically accurate.
It counteracts the more than $1 billion that has been allocated to abstinence-only
programming in the last decade. 

The most comprehensive reform
promoting women’s reproductive health and rights in Congress is known
as the Freedom
of Choice Act
This legislation, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), addresses
a series of findings that highlight many of the battles reproductive
rights activists have been fighting for years: the fact that 87 percent
of counties in the United States don’t have abortion providers, the
estimate that 1.2 million women in the United States each year undergo
illegal abortion procedures at the risk of injury or death, and that
bans and other legal barriers to abortion "endanger the health and
lives of women."  FOCA demands that a woman be able to make a
decision about whether or not she can or should terminate a pregnancy
"without governmental interference," and it is designed to put into
legislation what Roe v. Wade established decades ago: the right of women to access abortion without judgment,
and without undue burdens. Although there is reason to believe that Obama
supports such legislation, with a plate full of significant fixes like
repealing the global gag rule, overturning the HHS "conscience"
regulation, and bigger battles like comprehensive health care reform,
FOCA might not fall at the top of Obama’s priority list. FOCA is solid
legislation, though, that would virtually eliminate trepidation around
statewide abortion bans, trigger laws that would ban abortion at the
first sign of a shift on the Supreme Court, and nail-biting judicial

Ultimately, much of the legislation
that’s been introduced in the past, including some of the Democrats
for Life-supported bills, will likely be re-introduced in the next session
of Congress. Despite the increased number of Democrats in Congress,
and the wins for Planned Parenthood-endorsed candidates in the 111th
Congress, reproductive rights remains an issue that senators and members of Congress are all too happy to avoid. While many anti-choice
legislators and groups will try to push bills like the Ryan-DeLauro
bill as "common ground" legislation, such bills are actually
pushing the legislative agenda on choice even further to the right.
Legislation like Prevention First and REAL are in
reality far more centrist because they provide for popular measures like
promoting contraception and comprehensive sex education.