In the last 48 hours, the House and Senate have taken major steps to shape the budget that affects U.S. foreign affairs spending – and their positions couldn’t be farther apart when it comes investing in global women’s health. The House wants to slash funding for international family planning and bring back outdated restrictions to U.S. foreign aid. Meanwhile, the Senate would expand support for women around the world and amend the total ban on abortion in the Peace Corps.
Here’s what happened this week:
Drastically Different Visions
The House Appropriations Committee proposed a budget that – once again – includes drastic cuts to international family planning and reproductive health, eliminates support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and imposes the draconian global gag rule that prohibits organizations receiving U.S. funding from providing information and referrals on abortion, even with their own money. The bill also maintains the total ban on abortion coverage for Peace Corps Volunteers. The combined impact of these restrictions would devastate some of the world’s poorest women.
For many women in developing countries, the U.S. international family planning program and UNFPA provide lifesaving health care and supplies. When these programs get cut, clinics close, women lose regular access to birth control and rates of unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion rise.
Champions of women’s health in the House did not take these attacks lying down. Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) described the proposed cuts as “simply unacceptable” and “unconscionable” and led a coalition of members in offering amendments to change them.
Earlier this month, Rep. Lowey introduced legislation that would permanently repeal the global gag rule. During the budget debate she offered an amendment opposing the global gag rule and supporting funding for UNFPA. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) offered an amendment to protect funding for UNFPA for a specific set of activities – including safe childbirth and emergency obstetric care, programs to prevent and treat fistula and eliminate early and forced marriage of young girls, programs that address gender-based violence and programs to provide contraceptive supplies. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) more specifically offered an amendment to protect funding for UNFPA only in the case of providing lifesaving family planning services in the 10 poorest countries where the U.S. is not currently funding programs through USAID.
These lifesaving protections should be no-brainers, but even with bipartisan support on each of these three amendments, the majority voted them down.
Rep. Lee captured it well when she said – "It’s really cruel to ban abortions and to ban family planning. What should women do?"
A Far Better Bill
Thankfully, the Senate debate took a very different tone. This morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its version of the bill that funds U.S. programs overseas. The Senate bill increases funding for international family planning, includes support for UNFPA, and leaves the global gag rule where it belongs – in the past. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) went further and offered an amendment to put an end to the global gag rule for good, mirroring the language of Rep. Lowey’s legislation and a parallel effort from Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) in the Senate.
In offering her amendment, Senator Shaheen observed that the global gag rule has "undermined the health of some of the world’s poorest women" and cited a 2011 Stanford University study that showed abortion rates actually increased due to the policy.
Senator Shaheen’s amendment was supported by a bipartisan coalition and passed the committee with even broader support. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) (a co-sponsor), Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) all demonstrated that protecting women’s health and supporting the freedom of speech and democratic rights are issues that transcend party lines.
The Senate bill included one other important provision – to provide abortion coverage for Peace Corps Volunteers in the cases of rape, incest or life endangerment, the same coverage other women working for the federal government currently receive. This, too, should be a no-brainer, but the truth is that the total ban on abortion for Peace Corps Volunteers has been in place since 1979, negatively impacting many women. The Peace Corps provision is a minimal step that corrects an injustice that has been too long perpetuated against women who are serving their country overseas. Senator Shaheen has also taken leadership of the Peace Corps Equity Act (following the passing of women’s health champion Frank Lautenberg who first introduced the bill).
Congress now has a choice. Reconciling these polar opposite budget bills will not be easy, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. For a woman in rural Kenya or Ethiopia, the difference between the House and the Senate proposals determines whether she will be able to access the cancer screenings or birth control she needs. And it determines whether or not a young woman serving her country in the Peace Corps is able to access a safe and necessary abortion when she needs it.
As senators and representatives head home for the month of August, they will be listening to constituents in their states and districts. And they need to hear that.