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National NOW Times >> Spring 2009  >> Article

Legislative Update: New Day Dawns in D.C. and NOW is There for Women

By Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst

NOW has experienced a whirlwind of feverish activity since the November elections and January's presidential inauguration. After suffering through the last eight years of almost-daily assaults on women's rights, opportunities and well-being, it is both refreshing and exhausting to once again promote and advance our agenda for equality.

Victories to Cheer

In the first week of Barack Obama's presidency, we applauded his repeal of the global gag rule and signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. Additionally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised the president to release $50 million for the United Nations Population Fund, which provides family-planning services worldwide. President Bush had refused to spend these Congress-approved funds for vital, lifesaving services, so this development truly is cause for celebration.

NOW worked with our partners in the National Coalition for Immigrant Women's Rights (NCIWR) to pass the reauthorization and enhancement of the children's health insurance program (SCHIP), and we won the inclusion of legally-present immigrant children and pregnant immigrant women under SCHIP coverage without the required five-year waiting period.

We made a special effort to turn the stimulus package into a more women-friendly recovery plan. NOW insisted that "shovel-ready" and "green" jobs must involve lots more "pink collars" and that the country's crumbling human infrastructure must be rebuilt, right along with the physical infrastructure. Passed in February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes money for community health centers and training of medical personnel, funding to prevent teacher lay-offs, and much more.

We spent many weeks encouraging the president to create a cabinet-level position to advocate for women, and on March 11, President Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. NOW looks forward to working with this Council, whose members consist of the leaders of every Cabinet and Cabinet-level agency. The Executive Director of the Council, Tina Tchen, is a stalwart feminist who is a former state vice president of Illinois NOW.

NOW is also pleased that President Obama's Cabinet includes seven superbly-qualified women: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis; Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius; head of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson; Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice; and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer.

Among other victories, several priorities on our reproductive justice agenda were put into place. The Obama administration announced it would rescind the last-minute HHS rules put in place by the Bush administration that expand the "conscience clause," effectively limiting women's access to reproductive health care. NOW activists and our allies sent thousands upon thousands of comments to HHS decrying these rules, and we submitted comments once again to demonstrate support for Obama's proposal.

The recently-passed omnibus appropriations bill (to fund the government for the balance of 2009) reinstated an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to offer discount drugs for low-income patients, which will help colleges and community health centers provide low-cost contraceptives. For the past two years the cost of birth control had soared as much as tenfold at those clinics because of the now-removed provision.

Sadly, neither the recovery act nor the omnibus bill restored the requirement that Medicaid cover the costs of birth control for poor women, nor did they remove the application requirement for states seeking to offer birth control to a larger number of Medicaid recipients. For more on this and other reproductive rights developments, see page 5.

And in a move to bring science back into stem cell research, President Obama announced that he would reverse the 2001 restrictions imposed by Bush.

In another development on the reproductive rights front, on March 22, a New York federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration to allow women aged 17 and over to access to over-the-counter emergency contraception (EC, also called Plan B). Judge Edward Korman, a Reagan appointee, criticized FDA officials for using "political considerations" to delay the availability of EC. In 2006, after years of NOW and many allies pressing the FDA to permit non-prescription sales, the agency approved sales only to women 18 and older. The determination on whether women younger than 17 will be able to obtain over-the-counter EC was sent back to the FDA, but medical experts have not recommended age limits for over-the-counter emergency contraception.

Upcoming Challenges

This spring, we will be busy pursuing new opportunities for progress -- first, by pushing for the swift passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. Although the House of Representatives passed two fair pay bills in January, the Senate passed only the Lilly Ledbetter Act, leaving us to work on Paycheck Fairness in hope of passing it before the summer recess. We will also promote NOW's Balancing Work and Family campaign and push for Paid Parental Leave. There is legislation before Congress now that would allow the nation's 2.7 million federal workers to take up to 4 weeks of paid leave for a newborn or adopted child. This benefit would make the government competitive with the private sector and set an important precedent as we advocate for paid sick days (the Healthy Families Act) and the expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more workers in the private sector and include a modest paid leave provision.

We also will work for greater attention to the Equal Rights Amendment and ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as passage of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and overturning the "don't ask, don't tell" and combat exclusion policies affecting women serving in the armed forces. We must remember that the military is not covered by our nation's civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, so these two improvements must be supported by our commander in chief, the military leadership and a majority of Congress.

NOW and NCIWR petitioned the Centers for Disease Control to drop their newly-imposed requirement that female immigrants (age 11 to 26) who are seeking permanent residence or entry to the U.S. must be immunized against the human papillomavirus (HPV). Unlike other infectious diseases addressed on the list of required vaccinations, HPV does not pose an immediate threat to public health, and U.S. citizen girls are not required to get this vaccine. We believe it is discriminatory to mandate the use of a medical procedure on a targeted group.

As part of our push for healthcare for all, NOW will continue to demand a single-payer plan that puts the people's well-being ahead of insurance and drug industry profits. To this end, we are working to get sponsors for Rep. John Conyers' (D-Mich.) single-payer bill, H.R. 676. We wil also be working to ensure that all women's reproductive care needs are included in any proposed plan. For more on this issue, see page 5.

Immediate battles have already begun around the 2010 budget. NOW will fight to ensure that anti-violence and human needs programs are fully supported in the budget and fully funded as well. As part of our work to end discrimination, poverty, and violence against women, we will begin plans to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and significant improvements to the welfare law in 2010, and work with Congress as they craft a comprehensive immigration reform package.

Take action on various women's rights issues, and read more about NOW's work with the new administration.

Interested in hearing more about issues like this? Come to the 2009 National NOW Conference! This year's conference will feature elections for a team of four national officers, and you can learn more about voting online.

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