General Articles

D.C. Abortion Ban Reinstated to Avoid Government Shutdown

In the recent eleventh-hour agreement on the budget for fiscal year 2011, the White House and Congress included a reinstatement of the Washington, D.C., “abortion ban,” a provision that forbids the District of Columbia from using its own locally raised tax revenue to fund abortions for its low-income women residents.[1] President Barabck Obama offered the reinstatement of the ban to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) as part of a compromise to reach a deal on the budget and avoid a government shutdown due to lack of funds. While Speaker Boehner rescinded on demands to defund Planned Parenthood and eliminate Title X spending, which funds family planning efforts, President Obama and Democrats agreed to additional spending cuts and the ban on publicly funded D.C. abortions.
The District’s ability to use its own tax revenues in the manner it sees fit has long been a popular tool for conservatives to use to further their ideological agendas. As such, “the city has been able to spend its own money to pay for abortions for women on Medicaid [only when] Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, in 1993 and 1994 and again in 2009 and 2010.”[2]
Many see the D.C. abortion provision as a sacrifice forced upon D.C. residents in order to keep the government open and stave off threats to women’s health spending elsewhere. President Obama held to his stance that Democrats “would never agree to cutting funds for family planning programs” and refused to comply with the GOP’s call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the elimination of Title X spending.[3] According to an aide present during some of the final negotiations in the Oval Office, when Speaker Boehner pushed for the provision that would end federal funding of Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide abortion, President Obama replied, “Nope. Zero. John, this is it.”[4] This took place shortly after Obama conceded to the ban on publicly funded abortions in D.C. “John, I will give you D.C. abortion. I am not happy about it,” President Obama is reported to have said.[5]
Congress voted in 2009 to lift the ban, in accordance with President Obama’s budget recommendation to limit restrictions on the use of local funds.[6] At the time of the House vote lifting the ban, Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, released a statement praising the move to remove the abortion limit, saying that its removal would allow the District “to make its own decisions about the use of it own funds to provide abortion health services for low-income residents.”[7]
Her statement also underscored the dangers of a ban on public funding for abortion, particularly in Washington, D.C.: “Restrictions on public funding for abortion disproportionately affect women of color, a quarter of whom in D.C. are living in poverty and are more likely to rely on public funding for basic medical services,” the statement read.[8] “The time needed to save money, if indeed they even can, often results in poor women experiencing delays in obtaining an abortion. The greater the delay in obtaining an abortion, the less safe the procedure becomes. Those women who are unable to secure the funds can be denied affordable services altogether.”[9]
Of the recent reinstatement of the ban, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton denounced “the Administration and Senate Democrats” for “roll[ing] over and us[ing], our right to self-govern as a bargaining chip,” and further noted that “District residents and detainees at Guantanamo Bay were the only groups singled out in the bill, and the symbolism of the pairing and the contempt it shows for our city is not lost on our residents.”[10] Delegate Norton’s blistering condemnation of the bill and a vehement protest that led to the arrest of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and several members of the City Council fell on deaf ears; thus, the restriction will be in place until at least Fiscal Year 2012.
The reinstatement of the ban went into effect on April 14, 2011, just days after the government reached the budget compromise. As a result, 28 women who before the budget deal had been scheduled to receive an abortion in the District on that day were informed that they could no longer rely on D.C. Medicaid to cover the cost of their procedures.[11] The D.C. Abortion Fund (DCAF), an organization driven entirely by volunteers that works to secure funding for low-income, District-area women seeking an abortion, began an emergency campaign to raise funds for these 28 women,[12] and it raised $3,965 in the first 12 hours.[13] In response, Catholics for Choice (CFC) issued a fund-raising challenge and pledged to match, dollar-for-dollar, every contribution up to $10,000 made to the DCAF. “CFC condemns using the reproductive health of low-income women in Washington, D.C., as a bargaining chip to reach a budget agreement,” commented Jim O’Brien, CFC’s president.[14]


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[1] Brian Naylor, “Federal Budget Battle Frustrates DC Residents,” NPR, 12 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2011,

[2] Jessica Gresko, “DC mayor, council members arrested while protesting city restrictions in fed budget deal,” Newser (12 April 2011), accessed 27 April 2011, <>.

[3] David M. Herszenhorn and Helene Cooper, “Concessions and Tension, Then a Deal,” New York Times, 9 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2011,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Editorial Board Opinion, “Bargaining away the District’s Rights,” Washington Post, 11 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2011, <>.

[6] Jodi Jacobson, “DC Abortion Ban Lifted by House of Representatives; Effort Moves to Senate,” RH Reality Check, 17 July 2009, accessed 15 April 2011,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, “Norton Calls for Action by Outraged City on Sellout of D.C. Home Rule, And Warns City’s Rights Still on the Auction Block As Negotiations Continue,” Press Release published April 9, 2011, accessed 27 April 2011, <>.

[11] Aaron Morrissey, “D.C. Abortion Funding Ban Begins To Rear Its Ugly Head,” dcist, 14 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2011, <>.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Matching Gift Challenge,” Catholics for Choice, 15 April 2011, accessed 15 April 2011,