A central motto of today’s GOP and Tea Parties appears to be: Never let evidence get in the way of efforts to pass a law undermining women’s access to healthcare.
An addendum to this motto appears to be: Never let an opportunity pass to deny funding to or politicize services providing care to the poorest and least-enfranchised women in the world, most particularly those who suffer high rates of maternal death due to lack of access to family planning services and high rates of complications of pregnancy and unsafe abortion.
In keeping with this, just weeks after publication of a major report underscoring the benefits of robust U.S. investment in family planning worldwide, the GOP-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee voted in the early hours of the morning today to reinstate the Global Gag Rule (GGR) as part of the draft Fiscal Year 2012 State Department Authorizations Act, except this time with broader and more damaging implications than ever before.
Some 215 million women worldwide have an “unmet need” for family planning, meaning that they want to either space or limit births but do not have access or lack consistent access to reliable methods of birth control that fit their personal needs. Women with unmet need make up 82 percent of the estimated 75 million unintended pregnancies that occur each year. The remaining 18 percent are due to inconsistent method use or method failure.
Providing all women with basic family planning services, is first and foremost a matter of basic human rights and bodily integrity. But it is a smart investment for many other reasons. As an April 2011 report by the Council on Foreign Relations notes:
Global demographic and health trends affect a wide range of vital U.S. foreign policy interests. These interests include the desire to promote healthy, productive families and communities, more prosperous and stable societies, resource and food security, and environmental sustainability. International family planning is one intervention that can advance all these interests in a cost-effective manner. [In addition such investments] can significantly improve maternal, infant, and child health and avert unintended pregnancies and abortions… [and] saves significant investments in other health and social services.
How best to do this? Dramatically expanding access to quality, voluntary reproductive health services, programs for lack of which women are quite literally dying.
And it is these very programs that the House GOP most hates, as evidenced by the endless effort to institute the gag rule.
In brief, the GGR, which has existed in the form of an Executive Order for nearly three decades, denies U.S. family planning assistance to any foreign organization that uses their own non-U.S. funds to provide information, referrals or services for legal abortion services or to advocate for the legalization of abortion in countries where complications of unsafe abortion are often the leading cause of maternal death and women die in droves from illegal and unsafe abortions. Since 1984, the GGR, also known as the “Mexico City Policy,” has been a political football, first imposed by the Reagan Administration then lifted (by Presidents Clinton and Obama) and re-imposed (by President Bush) every time the White House has changed hands.
The GGR is not necessary to prevent U.S. funding of abortion care. Another law, the Helms Amendment, already forbids U.S. funding for abortion care abroad except in cases of rape and incest (exceptions rarely if ever realized on the ground in any case). But under the GGR, the United States government has traditionally been prohibited from providing funding for contraceptive supplies and counseling to groups that deliver family planning services if they otherwise engage in the above-mentioned “abortion activities.”
That reality underscores the true intention behind the GGR: to undermine family planning programs that could prevent abortion in the first place.
And that has been its effect. Numerous reports (including those from the Center for Reproductive Rights, Population Action International, Ipas, and Human Rights Watch) exist documenting the egregious effects of the GGR on family planning and the lives and health of real women, so I won’t detail them all here. Suffice it to say that the GGR in its original form denies funding to those organizations best poised in terms of knowledge, capacity, legitimacy, and effectiveness to deliver reproductive health care to women in developing countries.
The version now included in the current draft FY 2012 State Department Authorization Act goes further than simply denying family planning funds to a much broader agenda. According to Ranking Member Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA):
“The language in the bill not only bars family planning assistance to local health care providers in poor countries, it bars ALL assistance to such organizations – including HIV/AIDS funding, water and sanitation, child survival, and education.”
As such, noted Berman, the current language creates “provisions… far more extreme than any policy that was implemented under Presidents Reagan, George Bush, or George W. Bush. Even President George W. Bush exempted HIV/AIDS assistance from the Global Gag Rule restrictions.”
“Withholding investment in women’s health by imposing this language on the clinics and
NGOs that support them,” asserts Berman, “is a major step back in U.S. development efforts around the world.”
According to colleagues, a “spirited, hour-long debate” was held late last night on the amendment “with Reps. Berman, Gerald Connolly (D-VA), David Cicilline (R-RI), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), Eliot Engel, Theodore Deutch (D-FL), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) defending the Berman proposal, and Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Ann-Marie Buerkle (R-NY), Renee Ellmers (R-NC), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) speaking in favor of reinstating the gag rule.”
When the vote was taken this morning, however, the Berman amendment to remove the GGR failed by a vote of 17 to 25. All Republican committee members and one Democrat, Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY), voted against the Berman “motion to strike” the GGR provision from the bill. Two Democrats—Reps. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Karen Bass (D-CA)—who would have otherwise supported the Berman amendment if they had been present for this morning’s vote, were absent.
It is worth noting that groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Family Research Council, Americans United For Life and other such organizations fully back re-instatement of the gag rule.
The GGR was not the only politically- and ideologically-motivated portion of the bill aimed at undermining women’s rights. Another amendment, this one offered by Congressman Fortenberry, was adopted. It states: “It shall be the policy of the United States to declare sex-selection abortion a human rights violation,” and mandates that the State Department track and report on sex-selection abortion in every country. Why is this bad policy? For one thing, it focuses on the outcome, rather than the cause, of deep gender disparities around the world that create overwhelming preferences for sons, and by doing so focuses on the actions of women attempting to conform to gender norms they don’t create. For another, it does nothing to address those gender dispartieis and thereby make better the lives of women and girls, nor does it strengthen basic reproductive health care services urgently needed by all women. And finally, taking a page from past such strategies, it is yet another effort by the far right to begin creating a case for denying assistance to other countries, this time based on sex-selection abortion reports.
A third amendment, one that would have sought to eliminate U.S. funding to UNFPA, was not offered, as it is expected that there will be a separate bill introduced by Congresswoman Ellmers, who earlier this year made clear she intended to do so.
Once the full bill passes out of committee, it will continue on to a vote in the House.
And if these policies become law, women will go on dying, unnecessarily, to advance the political careers of the likes of Chris Smith and the political agendas of the USCCB and others with a lifelong desire to deny them care.