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Lifting the D.C. Abortion Ban

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July 20, 2009

Last Thursday, the House of Representatives approved the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act and finally lifted a 20-year ban that barred Washington, D.C., from using local funds to pay for abortions for low-income women.

Since 1980, Congress has prohibited the use of federal funds appropriated for the District of Columbia to pay for abortion services except in cases where the woman’s life is endangered or she is a victim of rape. Beginning in 1988, Congress went one step further by also preventing the District of Columbia from using its own locally raised, nonfederal revenues to provide abortion care to its low-income residents. This violation of the District’s autonomy was relieved for only two years, in 1993 and 1994, when Congress voted to lift the ban. A year later, an anti-choice majority in Congress restored the ban, and it has remained in effect since that time.

This past May, President Obama’s budget recommendation to Congress sought removal of the restriction. We’re pleased to see that the House acted accordingly to allow the District to decide whether and how to meet the needs of poor women in their communities.

The D.C. abortion ban is wrong on so many levels. It violates the spirit of the Home Rule Act by intruding on the District’s autonomy and disenfranchising its residents. It also burdens poor District women’s access to their constitutionally protected right to abortion. Additionally, through this provision, nonresident Members of Congress impose their own ideology, morality or religious belief upon the District’s residents and utterly disregard the needs or wishes of the broader community or those directly impacted.

Most egregiously, those who seek to negate the will of the District’s residents or leaders are not accountable to the people of the District. That which they could not do in their own home districts, they do with impunity against the residents of the District. Indeed, numerous states currently use their own, nonfederal funds, to provide medically necessary abortions. Congress does not order New York, California or Arizona not to spend local tax dollars on abortion, and it should not do so with the District.

So the House vote was a very important step in the right direction. However, D.C. can’t claim victory just yet. The Senate version of the Financial Services bill has yet to reach the floor. We’re heartened that the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week did not include the D.C. abortion, but it’s unlikely that this fight is over. But today we applaud the leadership in the House of Representatives and celebrate a key victory.

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