Hand in Hand


Those of us who care about women's health and rights have long lamented the diminishing U.S. government support for reproductive health–both for those in this country and for the millions around the world whose lives depend on our assistance. But maybe there is a way that we can help turn things around: by joining together the now-separate efforts of the international and domestic reproductive rights fields, as well as with our allies in other progressive causes.

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying a complex history, here's a quick review of how domestic and international efforts diverged.

Family planning first landed on the official United States policy agenda in the 1960s. The initial aims of these early policies were, admittedly, not entirely altruistic: Eugenics and a desire to stem immigration played a role. But U.S. support was also focused on humanitarian concerns such as alleviating food crises and extreme poverty, and bolstering environmental and national security. Improving the status of women was a minor interest at first, but one that took on increasing prominence over the years.

Support in those early days was broadly bipartisan, with Republicans such as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush among the most ardent proponents. Within just a few years, the U.S. became the world's most significant sponsor of voluntary family planning, both at home and abroad. Today, according to USAID, it supplies 35 to 40 percent of donor-provided contraceptives to the developing world.Hand in Hand

But in a backlash to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, both domestic and international family-planning assistance became politicized by right-wing forces. The Helms amendment, passed in 1973, prohibited U.S. foreign assistance from being used for abortion services. Three years later, the Hyde amendment cut off Medicaid funds from being used for abortions in the U.S. And in 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan instituted the global gag rule.

As U.S. feminists kept fighting domestically to preserve women's hard-fought right to abortion, supporters of global women's reproductive rights focused more on issues of birth control and family planning. And the two movements found themselves working in separate spheres, with distinct funding streams and unique political allies.

Yet for years, the same conservative forces in the U.S. who have worked to eliminate abortion services, promote abstinence-only programs in schools and exempt doctors and pharmacists from their obligation to provide reproductive health care have also been the ones pushing to export such philosophy abroad. Indeed, policies such as the global gag rule are often first tried abroad–where few U.S. citizens notice their operation–and then attempts are made to import them back to this country.

In his latest budget request, President Bush recommended cutting international reproductive health assistance to a paltry $325 million–the same level at which his father left it in 1992. He has consistently attempted to flatline domestic Title X family-planning funds, while increasing taxpayer dollars for domestic and international abstinence-only programs. The president has also blocked some $200 million appropriated by Congress for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the agency that provides the poorest women in over 150 countries with family planning, maternal and child health services and HIV prevention assistance.

The list of family-planning roadblocks thrown up by the Bush administration goes on and on: egregiously inappropriate appointments to critical government positions, the denigration of condoms, blatant disregard of scientific evidence. And we have not been able to overcome these obstacles, partly because the domestic and global movements have been moving on parallel tracks rather than in tandem. As a result, we have weakened and dispersed our base, complicated our messages and further dissipated the scarce resources available to do our work.

But we can still do right by the world's women by working together with those with whom we share common cause. Here are some excellent examples of current efforts to work collaboratively:

  • The Sierra Club has undertaken a Global Population and Environment campaign to increase access to family planning and comprehensive sex education, advance women's and girls' basic rights, and raise awareness of wasteful resource consumption at home and abroad.
  • Ipas, an international reproductive-rights organization, partnered with U.S.-based SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to map sexual and reproductive rights across the U.S., thus linking reproductive choice with the right to choose life partners.
  • NARAL Pro-Choice America's work to guarantee every woman reproductive choice now includes women outside U.S. borders as well as within.
  • The Feminist Majority Foundation has seen student engagement and activism swell as it has incorporated global issues into its campus outreach programs.
  • Women Won't Wait, a coalition of women's-rights, health, development, human-rights and HIV/AIDS organizations from the global North and South, has come together around the two pandemics threatening the lives of women throughout the world: HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.

By recognizing our common goals and joining forces, we can take back the agenda. We have no reason to continue segregating our efforts and working in separate silos; we have hundreds of millions of reasons to work together to defeat the dangerous fundamentalist opposition to women's health and rights. Can we give it a try?

For the full special report on global reproductive rights, see the Winter 2008 issue of Ms. magazine, now available on newsstands and by subscription from www.msmagazine.com.

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To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.