On Monday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) published an open letter to Congressional Republicans about HR 7 -- legislation that aims to restrict abortion access for women around the country. In decrying her House colleagues' support for the bill, misleadingly entitled the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, Sen. Boxer points out that existing law already restricts federal funding for abortions. Calling HR 7 "dishonest and insincere," Sen. Boxer argued that the legislation's real intention is "to eliminate insurance coverage for abortion so women can't even use their own personal funds to pay for their reproductive care."
Sen. Boxer is right in her analysis of HR 7's intended effects. And for that I applaud her. But Sen. Boxer deserves commendation for something even more meaningful where the reproductive rights of women are concerned: her co-sponsorship of S 132, the New Columbia Admission Act.
This Isn't New: Longstanding Federal Interference in D.C. Abortion Policy
As feminists and politicians around the country have noted, the passage of HR 7 would have the effect of permanently banning Washington, D.C., and only Washington, D.C., from using locally raised tax dollars to fund abortions in the District. With no voting representation in Congress, D.C. could only send our non-voting delegate, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, to advocate against HR 7 on our city's behalf.
But even that didn't work. Republican members of the Judiciary Committee's subpanel on the Constitution and Civil Justice denied Rep. Norton's request to testify during a January 9 hearing on the bill. D.C. is already denied a vote in the federal legislative body. And in deliberations surrounding a law that specifically targets D.C. earlier this month, we were denied even a voice.
Of note, the Judiciary Committee still found time to hear testimony on HR 7 from the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When government forbids tax-paying citizens from having a say in legislation that directly affects them, while soliciting policy input from religious figures, it veers uncomfortably in the direction of theocracy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was vocally in opposition to her fellow Representatives' silencing of Rep. Norton. Quoted in The Hill on January 9, Rep. Pelosi lamented that the Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee was "considering legislation restricting women's rights and denying a woman Member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, the ability to testify on that legislation." A week prior, Rep. Pelosi had taken to Twitter to defend the District's autonomy in the face of HR 7, exclaiming, "Unbelievable-House GOP deny @EleanorNorton's (D-DC) request to testify on a bill that assaults women's health in DC."
As a resident of the District of Columbia, I appreciate Rep. Pelosi's outspokenness about HR 7's unique impacts on my city, and the District's ongoing disenfranchisement. With no one in Congress to defend us, I am grateful to Congresspeople from other states when they advocate for democratic rights on our behalf.
But from the point of view of a woman in D.C., HR 7 is an almost irrelevant piece of legislation. On one hand, it has little chance of passing. But more importantly, the intended, D.C.-specific outcomes of HR 7 are already in place, and have been since the 1980's.
HR 7 codifies more formally what Congress already does on a yearly basis: Ban the D.C. government from using local revenues to subsidize abortions for low-income women in the District of Columbia.
Though its population is now greater than those of either Vermont or Wyoming, D.C. is prohibited from having voting representation in the federal legislature. While we pay federal taxes and assume civic duties expected of all other American citizens, we are forced to abide by laws we have no say in.
Even more undemocratically, Congress routinely interferes with D.C.'s local budgetary decisions and the outcomes of local elections in the District. On an annual basis, D.C. allocates some of its local revenue toward abortions for low-income women. And almost every year, when Congress reviews and approves our local budget, Congress forbids D.C. from going forward with its spending plans for reproductive health.
The federal government prohibited my city from spending local tax dollars on abortions from 1988 through 1993, 1995 through 2009, and 2011 through today.
Statehood Is Essential for Reproductive Choice in D.C.
Fortunately for the women of D.C., there is a piece of legislation before Congress that would prevent the regular restricting of reproductive freedoms in the District of Columbia: The New Columbia Admission Act.
HR 292 in the House and S 132 in the Senate, the so-called "D.C. statehood bill" would shrink the size of the Constitutionally-mandated federal district to include those parts of D.C. where federal representatives from other parts of the country work, and restore full democracy to the more than 646,000 people who call D.C. home.
If granted statehood, the citizens D.C. would have the same rights -- and not just the same obligations -- as all other Americans in the United States. And if D.C. achieves statehood, Congress will no longer have the authority to review, overturn, and overrule the local budgetary and legal decisions of voters in the District of Columbia.
As a co-sponsor of the New Columbia Admission Act, Sen. Boxer is a leader in both civil rights for disenfranchised Americans and reproductive rights for women who have no say in the laws that govern our choices.
I would like to encourage Rep. Pelosi, and other members of Congress who were outraged by HR 7, to join Sen. Boxer -- and other notable progressive leaders like Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Representative James Clyburn (D-SC), and Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) -- in co-sponsoring the D.C. statehood bill.
And time is of the essence. 2013 was the first time in 20 years that Congress saw D.C. statehood legislation in both the House and Senate. Through the New Columbia Admission Act, Congress has a historic opportunity to right old wrongs in the nation's capital. No other piece of legislation about D.C. - not budget autonomy, not legislative autonomy -- would prevent future Congressional interference in D.C.'s local affairs and restore citizenship rights to hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been denied a vote for more than two centuries.
It is a shame that, in the shadows of the Capitol, the District of Columbia exists as a colony of the United States. I hope that fellow advocates for reproductive freedom around the country will join me in the fight for D.C. statehood. Until we have statehood in D.C., my basic reproductive rights will continue to be under threat -- with or without HR 7.