Obama Comes Through, Reversing Bush Era Repro Rights Restrictions


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.”

Originally posted on the Women’s Media Center.

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