This week presents us with the final House version of appropriations for Fiscal Year 2011. Even for the wonkiest among us, it can be a confusing time when, literally, the fate of hundreds of billions of dollars is discussed. It is very easy to get caught up in the numbers and dollar signs, and not think of what the expenditures and cuts mean, on an individual level. But, when you put the pieces together, it is clear that the new majority in the House of Representatives is conducting a direct, aggressive, and brutal campaign on individual women across the country. Their priorities are certainly not my priorities, and I do not believe that they reflect the priorities of the vast, vast majority of Americans.
I was turned onto this way of thinking by my colleague, SIECUS’ director of public policy, Jen Heitel Yakush, who, after seeing the released list of appropriations cuts for the first time, walked into my office and simply asked, “What are they trying to do?” It was not a rhetorical question. We came up with two possible answers. First, it is possible that, in their froth-mouthed frenzy to cut as much as possible from the federal budget, House appropriators have decided to gut anything and everything they can get their hands on. Second, and more likely I believe, these members are using the appropriation process to strike out at unmarried, low-income women and their children who are an ideal target because they are both politically unrepresented for the most part, and because they are found to be morally lacking.
So I want to focus on one hypothetical woman, let’s call her Kelly, and look at how some of the proposed cuts will affect her if enacted, and, I promise, no more discussion of money for the rest of this piece. Kelly is a seventeen-year-old woman who comes from a family hovering around the poverty line. The economy has hit her family like any other, and she may have to drop out of school to work. Already, she is at high risk for unintended pregnancy. One hope that she would have to avoid unintended pregnancy is through comprehensive sex education and other programs designed and proven to reduce her risk. Unfortunately, she is out of luck because the President’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative has been cut, depriving her of the opportunity to actually be educated about how to protect herself. Many of the programs that are still available to her are funded through the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program which has, unsurprisingly, avoided the cuts. Again, to Kelly’s harm, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs don’t work, so are useless to her. She is now left with no real education on how to prevent an unintended pregnancy.
Wait. Maybe Kelly was lucky enough to be a recipient of outreach from her local Planned Parenthood where she could receive high quality education and have affordable access to contraceptives. Sorry, Kelly. All federal family planning funding, and all funding for Planned Parenthood across the country, has been cut by the appropriators, so there is no more access for her.
Spoiler alert. Kelly gets pregnant. She’s lucky she didn’t also get an STD or contract HIV.
If she were in this position a few years ago, she might have been faced with a few options: whether to terminate the pregnancy, or carry the fetus to term and either raise the baby or put it up for adoption. Kelly does not have these options. There used to be an abortion provider near her, but it shut its doors. She may feel trapped and desperate enough at this point that she tries to abort the fetus herself or goes to an unlicensed, “back-alley” facility. Both of these choices carry great risk of injury or even death for her.
She therefore “decides” to carry the fetus to term. During the course of her pregnancy, Kelly is unable to access good prenatal care because, yet again, appropriators have made cuts to the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant Program and the Title X family planning program. Without adequate prenatal care and counseling, Kelly and her fetus face a slew of potential health problems. Her fetus has a much higher risk of being sicker and smaller when it is born.
Finally, as a struggling new mother who may or may not have completed high school, eighteen-year-old Kelly works a full time job to try to provide for her and her child. However, she is unable to put adequate food on the table or ensure the health of her child because, in the most perverse possible decision, House appropriators have cut funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which we all know as WIC, as well as for Community Health Centers. Kelly and her baby are sicker, more alone, and less prepared to face the myriad challenges of the rest of their lives than it is possible to imagine. It is a fate no one deserves.
I introduced Kelly’s story as a hypothetical but, know this, the fact that this scenario will play out countless times for countless low-income young women is a certainty. The hypothetical becomes the inevitable. As a native Washingtonian, I am familiar with the many t-shirts and signs that pro-life protestors wear and carry around my city. One of the most prevalent from the Bible, Matthew 25:40, reads: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. The protestors are referring to fetuses. But shouldn’t we, in whatever faith we have, and whatever sense of charity and morality we hold in our hearts, realize that it is in fact Kelly, and all the women like her who are the ones truly deserving of this sentiment? If these cuts go through, and the dominoes of cruelty and neglect are allowed to fall, our country has truly had a great moral failing.
What are we trying to do?