One of the major impasses between Congress and the White House this year has been over the bills that fund the government. But it looks like the fighting may soon come to end as lawmakers attempt to pass an omnibus funding bill that President Bush will not veto.
On the House side, Appropriations Chair David Obey (D-Wis.) says he's optimistic. Obey has been in the middle of a heated reproductive and sexual health battle for many months related to both the controversial Global Gag Rule (also known as the "Mexico City Policy") for its purpose of restraining any discussion related to abortion from U.S. funded health clinics overseas and the recent increase in federal dollars for failed abstinence-only programs.
Unfortunately, passing such a large spending package that wouldn't get vetoed by our illustrious president meant gutting the bill (over the weekend) of language put in place by Democrats who wanted to see either a full repeal of the harmful Global Gag Rule or at least what was termed a "contraceptive exemption." The "contraceptive exemption," introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, would have allowed for the provision of free contraception to international health agencies that have been denied funding through the Global Gag Rule.
The Global Gag Rule, put in place by President Reagan, and lifted temporarily only by President Clinton, restricts free speech and limits health care provision in many developing nations by preventing U.S. aid to family planning agencies that provide crucial health services unless they abide by severe free speech curtailments as set by the U.S. government –free speech limits that would never hold up under the United States Constitution. President Bush's insistence on continuing to bar funding to international NGOs, agencies that are in some way connected to centers that provide or advocate for abortion as an option, has had a tremendous impact on women and their families.
According to the Washington Post:
"Two of the largest distributors of contraception [in Kenya], Family Health Options Kenya and Marie Stopes Kenya, did not provide abortions, which are illegal in Kenya, but were subsidiaries of London-based parent organizations whose members helped provide them in other countries. Together, the two groups closed five family planning clinics after losing U.S. funding."
2007 saw a historic moment when both the Senate and House agreed that the global gag rule was harmful to women's health and and included provisions to overturn at least a part of it and get contraceptives to women who wanted them. But President Bush did not value the compromise position – and did not see the value in providing contraception. He threatened a veto early on forcing Democrats and Republicans to agree to his demands.
Reproductive health advocates do have something to celebrate. The bill loosens the shackle of the requirement that mandated that at least one-third of US global HIV prevention funds be used solely for programs that promote abstinence until marriage. The mandate is nullified for one year.
According to the Global Health Council, the bill increases funding levels for HIV/AIDS efforts globally by almost $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2008.
In addition, family planning funds were increased slightly to $461 million, though the global gag rule keeps them from being used in the most effective way possible. This funding level is far below the estimated $1 billion that is the appropriate U.S. contribution to the global total needed to meet unmet need for contraceptives.
"We commend members of Congress – on both sides of the abortion debate — for finding common ground to improve the lives of women and their children, thus reducing unintended pregnancies, abortion, and HIV infection through greater access to contraceptives. It is tragic that President Bush was unable to follow their lead. His persistent threat to veto the foreign assistance bill doomed this life-saving measure. It is unconscionable for a president to ignore the majority of the members of Congress, the majority of Americans and the best interests of millions of human beings because he is blinded by his own narrow beliefs. Today the shadow of one man darkens the lives of so many."
- Masimba Birawashi, Ethiopia Makes Strides in Family Planning, December 2007
- Katie Porter, Global Gag Rule in the Crosshairs, November 2007
- Amanda Marcotte, Anti-Choice Misinformation and The Global Gag Rule, September 2007 on RealityCast