Congress Gets Serious (About Blocking Reproductive Rights)

Although it’s budget season on Capitol Hill, you’d never know it from watching Congress. Work on the appropriations process has stalled for the time being as the House and Senate wrestle with the two most vital issues of the day: preventing victims of sex trafficking from having access to abortion and trying to make sure that employers in the District of Columbia can fire their employees for using birth control.

Yes, seriously.

Trafficking Victims’ Options Limited

In March, the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (S. 178, H.R. 296) ran into a snag when Senate Democrats discovered an anti-abortion provision hidden in the language of the bill. Although it never mentions abortion specifically, the language in question would extend the Hyde Amendment—which bars taxpayer funds from being used for abortion care—to the funds set aside to aid victims of trafficking. Because the victims’ fund would not be composed entirely of taxpayer money, the restriction would actually expand the Hyde Amendment beyond its original scope.

While Senate Republicans insisted that the language had been there all along, Democratic leaders pushed back. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) stated:

This bill will not be used as an opportunity for Republicans to double down on their efforts to restrict a woman’s healthcare choices. It is absolutely wrong and, honestly, it is shameful. I know there are a whole lot of us who are going to fight hard against any attempt to expand the Hyde Amendment and permanently impact women’s health.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was unequivocal, stating bluntly that “… this bill will not come off this floor as long as that language is in the bill.”

After more than a month of tense negotiations, the two sides reached a compromise. The bill now splits funds for victims into two accounts: One collects fines from convicted traffickers and uses them for non-health-related victims’ services; the other comes from federal funds that are already covered by the Hyde Amendment.

The compromise, from our point of view, is less than ideal. Victims of trafficking should have access to whatever kind of care they need to help them recover and begin their new lives, including access to abortion care. And debate about exactly where the money comes from and exactly how it can be used very much misses that point.

Several senators recognized the bill’s limitations, yet still deemed it worthy of passage. “I will support this compromise, but not because I believe it is the best solution,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “I will vote ‘aye’ because the survivors who have lost so much already and deserve our support on their own terms have told me that they can live with this compromise.”

Leahy did offer an amendment that would have stripped out the Hyde language. It failed, 43-55, with three Democrats voting against it: Sens. Bob Casey (PA), Joe Donnelly (IN), and Joe Manchin (WV).

The amended bill passed the Senate 99-0. House leaders have not yet said when they plan to bring the bill to the floor.

House Attempts to Void DC Birth Control Law

In December, the District of Columbia City Council amended its 1977 Human Rights Act to expand the definition of sex discrimination to include “discrimination based upon the reproductive health decisions of an employee, their spouse, or their dependent.”

The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, passed unanimously by the Council, forbids discrimination based on an employee’s “use or intended use of a particular drug, device, or medical service, including the use or intended use of contraception or fertility control or the planned or intended initiation or termination of a pregnancy.”

In practice, it would prevent employers in the District of Columbia from firing someone because they (or their spouse or dependent) used birth control or had an abortion. But because Congress has jurisdiction over the laws of the District, it can reverse decisions made by the City Council. And that is exactly what the House of Representatives tried to do.

Stating that they believed the bill to be an unconstitutional violation of the religious rights of employers, House Republicans introduced a resolution of disapproval and called for a vote.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s non-voting delegate to Congress, condemned the effort, stating:

My Republican colleagues will cite freedom of religion, which in this case would be the freedom of any employer to discriminate against any employees because of the personal, constitutionally protected reproductive choices she makes in a private capacity.

She was echoed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who said:

This resolution would give an employer coercive power to intrude on a woman’s private decisions about birth control, in vitro fertilization, and abortion. Those are activities that are none of an employer’s business. They are activities that obviously happen off the job and decisions that have no bearing whatsoever on a woman’s ability to do her job.

Over protests from House Democrats and local activists, the resolution passed, 228-192.

The Senate did not take up this resolution within the legally required time frame, but it remains possible that both houses will try to use the appropriations process to bar DC from enforcing the law.

Looking Ahead

Presumably, work on the budget will resume at some point, and we expect further attacks on family planning when it does. Attempts to cut funding, to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, and to attack the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) are all highly likely. The votes we’ve already seen are proof that this Congress will take any opportunity to curtail our reproductive rights. We are all going to have to be vigilant if we intend to stop them.

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