by Cathy Deeds
October 20, 1998
In the final weeks of the 105th Congress, our pro-life office was immersed in discussions with congressional leadership and the White House about including or keeping several pro-life provisions in the $500 billion "must pass" omnibus spending package. The bill includes funding and policy provisions from eight annual appropriations (spending) bills that did not become law before the fiscal year ended on September 30. Congress is expected to pass the omnibus package, and the President is expected to sign it.
It is no easy task working on these issues with a Congress that has many competing legislative priorities, each of which must be negotiated with a pro-abortion White House. The President threatened to veto the entire spending package if it included even minimal pro-life safeguards. Ordinarily "compromises" are made by both sides in such negotiations, so that each side gets some of its priorities enacted into law. The overarching goal of Congress in these negotiations, however, was to keep federal programs funded and avoid a "government shut-down" before an election.
During the early budget discussions, we were cautiously hopeful that several pro-life measures would be included in the final package. But somehow, in the final days of heated negotiations --and despite the best efforts of some Members and congressional staff -- our issue always seemed to get tossed aside and forgotten . . . somewhat like the unborn child herself.
Regrettably, the White House and pro-abortion forces in Congress prevailed in many of their demands. When budget negotiations go down to the wire, controversial or new policy items are often dropped in favor of consensus-building provisions, so that the final package will pass. In this package, however, congressional leadership gave up several new, modest pro-life measures already passed by the House and/or Senate, and got nothing in return. Among the provisions which could have been included but were not: a House-passed provision to ban federal funding to develop or promote the abortion pill, RU-486; a House-passed provision requiring parental notification before a teenager can receive a contraceptive drug or device in a Title X family planning clinic; and a scaled-back Mexico City Policy, which would deny funding to overseas family planning organizations that work to overturn other nations' abortion laws. Also dropped from the final bill was a simple one-sentence provision to prevent Oregon physicians from using federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides; a more ambitious bill on this issue had passed both House and Senate Judiciary Committees. The advances made by these provisions were all notable pro-life "victories" -- but none will become law this year.
So what new measures did congressional leadership and the White House agree on? They included a controversial new mandate requiring all health plans that participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) to provide contraceptive coverage, including abortifacient "emergency contraception." The mandate exempts health plans if they object to such coverage based on religious beliefs (but not if they object based on moral convictions). It also exempts doctors who object to "prescribing" contraceptives based on religious or moral convictions. But nurses and other health professionals may have no protection at all, because they do not do the "prescribing" of such drugs; and even physicians may be forced to provide, inject, and insert contraceptive drugs and devices against their will. This is especially ominous in light of the mandate's inclusion of abortifacient drugs falsely called "postcoital emergency contraception." The vast majority of FEHBP plans already provide some forms of contraceptive coverage, and federal employees are free to choose among hundreds of plans based on the coverage they prefer. So this mandate was, to say the least, unnecessary --unless one's goal is precisely to force such coverage on plans, providers and employees who do not want it.
These disappointing budget developments come on the heels of a larger disappointment: the Senate's failure in September to override President Clinton's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortion. Despite unprecedented grassroots efforts and repeated personal appeals by many bishops to their Senators, the Senate still fell three votes short of the needed two-thirds majority. The Child Custody Protection Act, to prevent non-parents from taking minor children across state lines for abortions, was also shelved after failing to garner the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.
The good news in this gloomy report is the commitment and intelligence of pro-life members in Congress who sponsored, debated and advanced these measures, often behind the scenes and against formidable opposition. Their tireless efforts on behalf of children and the sick and elderly laid the foundation for further progress in 1999. Pro-Life Americans need to pray for and support these leaders and each other, and always remember the focus of our work --the vulnerable unborn and elderly who need each of us to defend the Truth, until their rights are served.
Cathy Deeds is a public policy analyst in the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.