On April 19, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) took the lead in introducing the Prevention First bill (HR 1709) in the United States House of Representatives. Like its companion bill in the Senate, S 20, this bill includes a number of important elements for reproductive and sexual health. For example, it includes access to emergency contraception in emergency rooms for rape victims, funding for an emergency contraception education project, condom non-disparagement requirements that ensure accurate information about condoms, equity in insurance coverage for contraception, and vitally needed dollars for family planning programs.
In the Senate, Prevention First was introduced in early January by the Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and was used as a tool to underscore the overall message and policy priorities of the Democratic leadership during the 109th Congress. In the House, it is a bipartisan bill, with Republicans Nancy Johnson and Robert Simmons, both of Connecticut, joining Rep. Slaughter and 47 additional Democratic colleagues in introducing the bill.
While there is much to recommend in both bills, advocates of the frontline of prevention-those involved in sexuality education and sexual health promotion programs-were cut out of the picture. Previous versions of prevention packages introduced in the House and Senate included support for sexuality education programs by incorporating the Family Life Education Act (FLEA). Now known as the Responsible Education About Life Act, or REAL, this provision would have established a funding stream for a comprehensive approach to sexuality education. No such funding stream currently exists at the federal level, however, three streams exist for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs providing nearly $170 million in the current fiscal year. Nonetheless, these bills were introduced without this component and the House followed suit.
"We were extremely disappointed that Rep. Slaughter decided to abandon the inclusion of the REAL Act in Prevention First," said SIECUS' vice president for public policy Bill Smith. "We communicated frequently with her office before the bill was introduced and mobilized grass roots in her district and in her home state, but her office insisted that they wanted a bill that directly mirrored the Senate version."
Normally, having identical bills introduced and passed in the House and Senate can avoid the difficult task of reconciling the differences in a conference. However, the prospect for passage of the bills in either chamber is highly unlikely.
"The policymakers did an end run around the advocacy groups on this one, and while we entirely support the bill; at the end of the day the cost for abandoning a key provision of prevention will be less advocacy around the bill," Smith said.