Legislative Update

by Jan Erickson

D & X Abortion Ban Vetoed

Although President Clinton recently vetoed a bill that would have banned an abortion procedure for the first time since the pivotal Roe v. Wade decision, Catholic bishops immediately vowed to pressure members of Congress to override the veto.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole, R.-Kan., was a co-sponsor and voted for the bill (H.R. 1833/S. 939) Congress passed in late March that would ban the late-term abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction (D & X). The procedure is used in rare cases when there is serious fetal deformity or when a continued pregnancy poses a danger to the health or life of the mother. This extreme measure, pushed by Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., and Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., contained a narrow "life endangerment provision" and made inadequate exceptions for the life or health of the mother.

This was the first time that a safe and effective medical procedure has been prohibited by Congress. The bill provided a fine and prison term of up to two years for physicians who perform the procedure without good cause. Anti-abortion members of Congress employed highly emotional debate tactics, exhibited graphic examples of the procedure and manipulated deceptive information to win a majority vote.

Many medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, opposed the legislation, and women who had experienced the procedure went to Washington to testify against the D & X bill. Less than 600 late term abortions are performed annually, and they are usually performed when there is no fetal brain development, a serious fetal genetic defect or when the mother has serious health problems associated with the pregnancy.

Similar bills prohibiting late-term abortions have been introduced in many states. Ohio passed legislation last year banning the procedure, but a federal trial court judge has found the measure to be unconstitutional. NOW and other reproductive rights advocates consider such legislation to be a frontal attack against Roe v. Wade, which held that states may ban abortions after fetal viability, except when the procedure is necessary to preserve the woman's life or health.

President Clinton vetoed the bill because it fails to protect women's health. Abortion rights advocates may now have to defend his veto in Congress. Call President Clinton to praise his veto and call members of Congress to press them to sustain the veto.

Repeal of Internet Ban on Abortion Speech

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have introduced bills (H.R. 3057/S.1592) to repal Section 507 in the recently passed Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibits certain types of speech about abortion on any interactive, on-line communications service. The section also prohibits the interstate transport via interactive computer service of materials that provide information about abortion or devices that are used to perform abortions.

Promoted by Republican House members as part of the misnamed Christian Coalition's contract with the American Family, the so-called Communications Decency Act provides a penalty for first-time violators, including a fine of up to $250,000 and/or five years' imprisonment. Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., was instrumental in getting the provision passed and added to archaic statutes known as the Comstock Act, first enacted in 1873 to prevent "obscene" materials from being sent via interstate commerce.

Rep. Schroeder decried the prohibition as a "high-tech gag rule" that violates First Amendment rights to free speech. Sen. Lautenberg declared the section unconstitutional, stating that his repeal measure, aptly named the Comstock Clean-up Act of 1996, would remove the chilling effect on abortion-related speech. As this issue went to press, the bills were before the judiciary committees of both houses.

Affirmative Action Repeal Advanced

Legislation (H.R. 2128) that would permit sex and race discrimination is moving forward in the House of Representatives, having passed out of the House Judiciary Constitutional Subcommittee. Sponsored by Rep. Charles T. Canady and misleadingly named the "Equal Opportunity Act of 1995," the bill prohibits affirmative action on the basis of race, color, national origin or sex with respect to federal employment, contracts and programs. The counterpart in the Senate, S. 1085, is sponsored by Sen. Dole.

Section 4(c) of both bills provides wide exceptions to the ban on discrimination that could be used to supersede and dilute federal laws against sex discrimination. It contains an overly broad "bona fide occupational qualification" exception and would permit sex-based classifications for undefined "privacy" interests. Other exceptions, based on out-moded stereotypes and assumptions about women, would permit sex discrimination in the Armed Forces and for reasons of "national security."

These bills would also undermine Executive Order 11246, which for 30 years has been very effective in opening the doors to qualified workers when federal contractors and the "old boys' network" had kept them closed for so long. If passed, this legislation would reverse much of the progress made toward fair employment opportunities for women and people of color.

The House Judiciary Committee was expected to vote on the Canady bill in late April. If that vote has not happened yet, calls should be made to Republican House members: Hyde (chair), Moorhead, Sensenbrenner, McCollum, Gekas, Coble, Lamar Smith, Schiff, Gallegly, Canady, Inglis, Goodlatte, Buyer, Hoke, Bono, Heineman, Bryant, Chabot, Flanagan and Barr. Democrats are: Conyers, Schroeder, Frank, Schumer, Berman, Boucher, Bryant, Reed, Nadler, Scott, Watt, Becera, Serrano, Lofgren and Jackson Lee.

VAWA Funding Assured

In one of the few victories that women have scored in the 104th Congress, nearly full funding of the Violence Against Women Act was allocated in the numerous continuing resolutions that have kept the government operating during the budget debate standoff. Advocates are having some difficulty launching new programs due to constraints under these continuing resolutions, but the omnibus budget bill proposes total spending of $228 million to fight domestic violence.

Program advocates were worried that spendig reductions would be deeper in the omnibus appropriations legislation, and funds for Department of Health and Human Services programs for rape prevention/education, reduction of sexual abuse of youth and shelter construction were slightly scaled back. But in an important gain, the final conference report for the omnibus bill restored $15 million for badly needed construction of additional women's shelter space.

However, funding for VAWA programs remains in jeopardy until the White House and Congress reach an agreement on a FY '96 budget bill; only then will we know the bottom line.

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