Family planning forecast: Will the center hold?

By Lisa Kaeser, JD

The Alan Guttmacher Institute

Washington, DC

Although the only real way to test Congress’ position on reproductive health and related issues is by taking actual votes, the voting records or public positions of the incoming members indicate that the next two years probably will produce largely centrist policies.

The House as a whole has moved closer to the center, while the Senate has moved farther to the right. Combined with the re-election of President Clinton, who will have a new power never before granted at the federal level — the line-item veto — it is far less likely that any radically conservative or progressive legislation will be signed into law. Instead, several of last year’s major controversies may be revisited.

In one of the first votes, Congress will determine the extent of U.S. support for international family planning programs. Over the last two fiscal years, legislators in the House have managed to push through disproportionate funding cuts and imposed spending restrictions that have not only hamstrung program administrators, but have forced some programs to be shut down entirely. The recently enacted foreign operations appropriations bill for fiscal year 1997, however, also contains an unusual clause: No later than Feb. 1, 1997, the president is directed to submit a "finding" to Congress outlining whether these spending restrictions are having a "negative impact upon the proper functioning" of population assistance programs. Both houses of Congress are then required to accept or reject the finding by the end of that month, and if both bodies conclude that there has been a negative impact, international family planning funds would be released March 1. Clearly, the outcome of this vote may not only determine the future of U.S. involvement in international family planning assistance, but it could well serve as a test vote for support of family planning in general.

Conversely, it is less likely that Congress will take aim at the nation’s domestic family planning program, Title X of the Public Health Service Act. In each of the last two years, major attacks have been staged on the program in the House, only to be defeated in the end.

Still, despite this support for family planning, many proposals targeted toward women who bear children out of wedlock were contained in the welfare reform proposal that President Clinton signed in August. Although he has stated publicly that the administration will develop and propose a welfare reform legislative "fix," it is unclear whether the new proposal will address any of these provisions. Among them is $50 million for an abstinence education program, to be run under the auspices of the Maternal and Child Health block grant, which mandates teaching, among other things, that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects." Another provision, the so-called "illegitimacy ratio," offers monetary incentives ($20 million to $25 million) to the top five states that can show, by 1999, that they have reduced the number of out-of-wedlock births without increasing their 1995 abortion rates.

Still another issue that seems certain to resurface is the controversial proposal for a ban on late- term abortions, dubbed by proponents as "partial birth" abortions. The bruising, pre-election fight over whether Congress’ role includes banning any type of legal medical procedure was particularly painful for some members. A few already have stated their intent to raise the issue again in the next session, and despite his earlier veto, President Clinton likewise seems willing to revisit the issue.

In addition, expect to see more proposals for "parental rights" legislation. Introduced with some measure of support in both houses during the last congress, such a bill would mandate that no federal, state, or local officials may usurp the rights of parents to bring up their children. While on its face the measure sounds reasonable to some, it could be interpreted to allow any disgruntled parent to challenge in court any government entity that has contact with their child, including schools, health departments, and social services agencies, thus potentially chilling any agency’s decisions that might affect minors and possibly leading to enormous litigation costs.