In recent years there hasn't been much good news coming out of Washington on family planning and reproductive health issues. That's probably the understatement of the year. But today there is very good news to report because of yesterday evening's votes in the Senate.
Last night, despite President Bush's veto threat, the Senate passed the FY 2008 State-Foreign Operations Appropriations bill (by a vote of 81-12) that includes significant provisions overturning destructive policies on family planning and HIV/AIDS. Thanks to the leadership and commitment of Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the Senate bill not only includes the identical measures in the House-passed bill (H.R. 2764) — exempting contraceptives from the Global Gag Rule and repealing the abstinence-only funding restrictions for HIV prevention programs — it goes even further by repealing the Gag Rule entirely.
This repudiation of some of the most egregious and harmful aspects of U.S. international family planning and reproductive health policy marks a major — and long overdue — victory for sound public health. And to put it in historical perspective, the Senate vote today is the first time since the Gag Rule has been in force — from 1984 to 1993 and again since 2001 — that both the House and the Senate have passed legislation to repeal or modify the restriction. This is significant in light of the all-important showdown that looms with the White House over President Bush's threatened veto of the entire $34 billion foreign assistance bill over the Gag Rule provisions.
The Senate 53-41 vote in favor of an amendment to repeal the Gag Rule, sponsored by Senators Boxer (D-CA) and Snowe (R-ME), is a victory for the tens of millions of poor women overseas who have been victimized by the Gag Rule and lack basic reproductive health care such as contraceptives. It's a powerful recognition of the Gag Rule's devastating impact on family planning programs.
Because of the Gag Rule, dozens of family planning providers in poor, developing nations have lost U.S. funding and technical assistance, forcing them to scale back services, lay off staff, and even close their clinics altogether. Adding to this harm, contraceptive donations from the U.S. government have been stopped to 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East since the Global Gag Rule was reinstated in 2001. Leading indigenous family planning providers in several other countries have also stopped receiving contraceptives from the U.S. Watch PAI's compelling documentary "Access Denied: U.S. Family Planning Restrictions in Zambia" for an example of the immense harm caused by the Gag Rule.
These draconian impacts come on top of major reductions in funding for international family planning and reproductive health in recent years. Since 1995, U.S. funding for these programs has fallen more than $100 million — a whopping 41 percent reduction when adjusted for inflation — despite a growing demand for reproductive health care in the developing world. It's worth noting that the number of women of reproductive age in the developing world alone has increased by approximately 275 million women since 1995.
By voting to repeal the Gag Rule and rigid, ineffective abstinence HIV funding mandates, Congress has restored some desperately needed common sense to U.S. FP/RH programs. Not incidentally, they're programs that the vast majority of the American people overwhelmingly support.
So, Mr. President, let's talk about that veto threat of yours…..