The past week has brought us some exciting news from Congress, but also a reminder of the threat the looming “fiscal cliff” could pose to women’s health. Before diving into those stories, here’s a quick tally of support for women’s health in the first session 113th Congress beginning in January 2013.
As a result of the 2012 election, the U.S. Senate now has 46 Senators who have voted to support women’s health 100% of the time and 43 who have consistently opposed measures that protect women’s health. The remaining 11 Senators have records of variable support for women’s health and will certainly play a key role in swaying the outcome of new legislation. Meanwhile, the number of Representatives who have voted to support women’s health 100% of the time rose from 158 in the last Congress to 173. Despite this impressive gain, advocates for reproductive freedom will face 228 Representatives who have consistently voted to oppose women’s health. However, even with a challenging landscape in the current 112th Congress, we’ve seen two great pieces of legislation take root in Congress recently.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s (D – N.H.) amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act would require federal insurance providers to cover abortion procedures for women in the military in the cases of rape and incest, among other reproductive healthcare services. Currently, servicewomen must carry the full financial cost of an abortion, with no insurance coverage unless their life is in jeopardy. Last Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved the legislation that would expand coverage to include abortion in cases of rape and incest. Before enactment, though, the Senate version must be merged with the House version, which lacks an amendment like Shaheen’s. Nonetheless, preliminary analysis indicates that the House will most likely include Shaheen’s amendment in the final legislation.
In another example of bipartisan efforts, several members of Congress have crafted legislation designed to enhance justice in rape cases. The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act provides law enforcement agencies with funds to reduce their backlogged rape kits. Nearly 400,000 rapes kits remain untested, contributing to the fact that in the United States there is only a 24% arrest rate for this crime and just 6% of rapists will ever be sent to jail. Statistics show that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. The cornerstone of addressing the trauma of this crime is being able to hold perpetrators accountable – the SAFER Act will better equip law enforcement officials to process rape kits in their possession, allowing rapists to be brought to justice faster.
The Shaheen amendment and SAFER Act are two bright spots in our current legislative session, which is becoming increasingly worrisome as we approach the January 2 “fiscal cliff.” Automatic budget cuts will occur on this date as a consequence of Congress not agreeing on a way to reduce the budget deficit by that time. These cuts will eliminate $500 million from the defense budget, as well as $500 million from domestic programs. Many of these affected programs directly benefit women’s health and some of those that may be drastically cut because of the political gridlock include: the Maternal and Child Health block grant, Title X Family Planning funds, the Child Care and Development block grant, food stamp funds, and Pell education grants. Women, particularly low-income women, stand to lose the most if Congress fails to act to prevent this economic crisis.
Still, we must continue to push forward and keep women’s health our priority. We will hold Congress and President Obama accountable to making it their priority as well during the 2013 Fiscal year. Their first opportunity to protect women’s health will be to protect the federal funding to domestic programs that will be automatically eliminated unless Congress reaches a budget agreement by January 2.
In the meantime, we encourage advocates for reproductive freedom to use online social media to spread the news about what’s happening in Congress. First on the agenda is the Shaheen amendment, and supporters are urged to use the hashtags #ShaheenAmdt, #NDAA, and #equality4servicewomen to increase awareness of this pivotal piece of legislation. You can also encourage your social media networks to educate others about what’s at stake with the “fiscal cliff” as we approach the deadline by following the hashtags #fiscalcliff and #my2k. Please help us spread the word.